Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Shawn Cafferky and Oral History

Shawn Cafferky.  FB photo.
Prior to the latest edition of Canadian Military History, I hadn't thought about Dr. Shawn Cafferky for a while.  I first received the news of his untimely death in 2008, through an email from the University of Victoria's Dr. David Zimmerman.  I had been Dr. Cafferky's student in his inspirational Oral History and Veterans class, and through this experience was inspired to pursue a Masters degree in Second World War military history.  There was something fascinating in the interviews in UVic's Special Collections on Second World War armoured operations.  Despite the inherent problems in the recollection of military memories, I was converted to a disciple of oral history.

It was hard not to get caught up in Cafferky's enthusiasm for his subject.  He had an easy-going manner which encouraged participation in seminar, in the hallways of the history department, or occasionally at the pub.  Cafferky's connections with the Vancouver Island branch of the Royal United Services Institute, allowed his students to have unprecedented access to retired members of the Canadian Forces.  In retrospect, it was incredible that Major-Generals were inviting mere undergraduates into their homes to conduct interviews on their military careers.

It was in Cafferky's course that I learned that doing history could be more than the time-honoured tradition of desk-bound academia.  Here was human history, with all its inherent problems of abrasive personality, selective memory, and interpreted experience.  Historians turn a skeptical eye towards the personal testimony of oral history, so often recorded long after the events in question.  For my own part, I consider oral history as another welcome source, to be scrutinized by the historian with due consideration for the nature of the oral medium.

Cafferky's article  "Battle Honours Won", published posthumously in the Summer 2010 edition of Canadian Military History, examines the British escort aircraft carrier HMS Nabob, which after the fall of 1943 was captained by Horatio Nelson Lay of the Royal Canadian Navy, and staffed by a mixture of Canadian and British Soldiers.

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