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Writing Biography (Part 2) by Nicholas Perry

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Nicholas Perry

Nicholas Perry

This is the second part of an article on Writing Biography from Nicholas Perry, the author of Major-General Oliver Nugent: The Irishman who led the Ulster Division in the Great War. You can read Part 1 of the article here.

Organisation and Structure

An obvious advantage of biography is that the subject’s life provides its own structure or narrative arc. In Nugent’s case his central experience was his command of the Ulster Division from 1915 to 1918 and so six chapters are devoted to that period, but the three preceding ones explain how his previous experiences as an Irish landlord, colonial soldier and UVF organiser had shaped his views, and the final chapter how he and his family adapted to the revolutionary upheavals of post-war Ireland. Because I wanted each chapter to be roughly the same length, deciding precisely what period each should cover and which topic should go where proved trickier and required more juggling than I’d expected.

For me the main attraction of historical biography is the light an individual’s experience casts on the broader context of their times, and some outstanding biographies of twentieth-century Irish generals do precisely that – Keith Jeffery’s study of Sir Henry Wilson, for example, or Richard Holmes’s of Sir John French and David Fraser’s of Alanbrooke. It does require, though, the integration of analytical sections into an essentially chronological narrative: in Nugent’s case these included, amongst others, the economics of soldiering for the Irish gentry, Cavan unionism’s mobilisation against home rule, Irish recruitment in the First World War, the development of tactics and command techniques on the western front and the geography of violence in the Irish War of Independence. Blending these into the story without disrupting the flow wasn’t always straightforward, and I now have even greater admiration for those who can do it seamlessly. I’d also thought that describing Nugent’s battles would be the easiest parts of the book to write but they proved the hardest, for two reasons. First, as every military historian knows, discovering what actually happened is exceptionally difficult and often impossible. Even with an action as closely studied as the Ulster Division’s attack on the first day of the Somme there are many episodes where accounts conflict, and that is even more the case in truly chaotic fighting like the March 1918 retreat. Second, in describing an operation, it is easy to end up with a lengthy recital of units, along the lines of ‘B Brigade attacked with C and D Battalions and advanced to Objective X’; yet this is just the sort of information that has to be conveyed in a military history, and the trick is to try to do it as concisely and with as much impetus as possible.

And then there’s the question I touched on earlier, the incongruity of authors who’ve never had to charge machine-guns, or take agonising decisions on the basis of inadequate information that could cost hundreds of men their lives, presuming to ‘judge’ those who have. Personally I am extremely reluctant to do so, and yet some kind of assessment is required if you are attempting to write history. In a few cases the examples I encountered of poor generalship were so striking (in the Ypres salient in 1915, for example, or at Passchendaele in 1917) that I ended up being more sharply critical than at the outset I’d intended. But, as a general rule, my strong view was that I should be very slow to be criticise and remember always that hindsight when writing history is less a wonderful thing than a menace.


Professor Hermione Lee has identified ten rules for biography which, since I hadn’t read them when I wrote this book, I can’t say guided me, but they do provide a sort of retrospective yardstick. They are that the story should be true, cover the whole life and not conceal anything; that all sources used should be identified, the biographer should know the subject, and be objective; and that the biography should be a form of history, an investigation of identity and have some value for the reader. Her tenth rule is that there are no rules for biography, and since I wasn’t aware there were any that’s the one rule I can say I followed absolutely. Readers will judge for themselves the extent to which this book meets Professor Lee’s other criteria, but the fact that I recognise them all I find at least a little reassuring.

Finally, though not part of the writing process as such, the quality of a book’s production is really important: while people should not judge a book by its cover they often do. Fintan Mullen, William Roulston and their team at the Ulster Historical Foundation – despite the complications of lockdown – have done a brilliant job with this book, not just the cover but the photographs, the maps, the layout and everything else, and I am extremely grateful to them.

(c) Nicholas Perry

Read Part 1 of this article here.

About Major-General Oliver Nugent: The Irishman who led the Ulster Division in the Great War

Oliver Nugent, Ireland’s longest-serving divisional commander of the Great War, led the Ulster Division on the western front from 1915 to 1918. That period saw the operational transformation of the British army and his own development as a general, from the heroic but doomed assault at Thiepval in July 1916, through the triumph of Messines, the heartbreaking failure at Ypres and the mixed success of Cambrai in 1917, to the great German spring
offensive of 1918.

Alongside the challenges of divisional command he had to manage the Ulster Division’s political dimension, with its roots in the pre-war Ulster Volunteer Force. The tensions that arose between him and politicians at home over issues like Irish recruitment, relations with the 16th (Irish) Division and, especially, Ulster’s place in a post-war political settlement, reveal not only the conflict between military and political priorities but also the divisions within Irish unionism during the Great War period.

More widely, Nugent’s career provides a unique insight into the political decline of the Irish landed class as well as their enduring military tradition – from his financial struggles as a young landlord in the 1880s, his regimental service on India’s north-west frontier and in the Boer war, and his involvement with the UVF in Cavan in 1914, to his role in quelling political unrest in post-war India, his return to an Ireland convulsed by revolution and his adaptation to life in the Irish Free State.

This study seeks to shed light on these different aspects of Nugent’s career by drawing not only on his extensive personal papers and diaries in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, but also on papers still in the family’s possession and the correspondence of key subordinates never previously used.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Nicholas Perry read history at Trinity College Dublin. He then spent 37 years as a civil servant in London and Belfast in various departments, including the MOD and the Northern Ireland Office, his final posting being as head of the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland.
He retired in 2018, was awarded the CB and is now at the University of Kent, researching the Irish landed class and the British army.
He has published several articles on military history and in 2007 edited Oliver Nugent’s Great War papers for the Army Records Society.

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