Welcome to the first of our monthly Guest Spot Q & A features. I’m very happy to be joined by Chris Baker author of The Long, Long Trail website, Military Historian, Researcher & founder of the Great War Forum
Firstly Chris, Welcome to Great War Refections & Thank You for agreeing to be my first guest! Can you start by telling us about yourself & your background?
I’m from a working class Birmingham family but we moved to Lichfield in Staffordshire when I was in my teens and since 1986 I have lived in Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. Looking back, I must have been a bit of a whizzkid in my chosen profession of manufacturing engineering, as I became a Chartered Engineer when I was 25 and by 30 I was Operations Director of a large automotive company. It also took me into industrial use of computing when that was all in its infancy, and that began for me when I was an undergraduate at the University of Nottingham and developed in a Masters at Birmingham. I later moved into consultancy and was privileged to work worldwide and advise some of the largest names, like Ford, General Motors, GKN, Massey-Ferguson, Volkswagen and Nokia. It was a terrific and lucrative life but took me away from my home an awful lot. By then I was married and had two children. In 1999 I had a business idea and started a new company that, as things turned out, made me financially very secure. Without that I would certainly not have done what I do today.
My Great War interest began with family but really only got going when I was an adult. In the early years it seemed to me that I was the only person interested in the Great War. I then found the Western Front Association and a few years later I became its Chairman. That coincided with a period in which I was working in the USA more than here and something had to give!
It was a little odd to return to the University of Birmingham where I gained another Masters, this time the MA in British First World War Studies, in 2007.
What inspired you to create the incredible resource website The Long, Long Trail & how did that then lead to the Great War Forum?
Military history and my technical interest of fiddling about with computers came together! Today’s LLT traces its roots directly back to my first website which began in 1996. I’ve added something to it most days since. I think it was 1998 I added a discussion forum, which was quite a new thing then. Technology was shifting fast and I moved it onto different software at least twice, the last being onto Invision which the Great War Forum uses to this day. This was all while I was still doing my day job and not even in the country half the time! Later on, as the membership and traffic at the Great War Forum continued to grow, I just did not have the time it needed to run it. The group of volunteer moderators at the time agreed to take it over and from that time it became a separate resource. It’s great to see it continuing to flourish.
How do you manage to find the time? The level of detail is truly immense.
It’s always been a hobby. Just bits and pieces being added or corrected, over a long period. Every now and again I think of a new section or larger article, and I have from time to time revamped the site technically. I’ve always tried to ensure it is all completely accurate in terms of the facts presented. But overall, the site itself probably only occupies an hour or two each week. I spend more time on it as a user!
You’re also a successful author as well. Could you tell us about some of your books?
I’ve just written my fifth and it is with the publisher now. A departure for me as it is mainly about the Belgian Army. Three others are about the Battle of the Lys in April 1918 and one, which I did slightly reluctantly after being asked to consider it, is on the 1914 Christmas Truce. They have all been good to work on and create, but there is no doubt that they have cost me money rather than make me rich!
Now that you’ve become a full time researcher, Did that start also as a hobby? And of the thousands of individuals stories that you’ve unearthed is there one in particular that sticks in your mind & you can share with us?
Visitors to the Long, Long Trail kept on asking for help. I would not have gone down this road otherwise. It is because of that I have never needed to advertise yet am continually fully booked up. I did my best for them while I was employed in a day job, but moved into it full-time 13 years ago now. Every story interests me and I think I learn something new with every single project. There have been many fascinating stories, both good and bad. Men who turned out to be decorated heroes and the family knew nothing. Men seen wearing impressive medal sets that never actually qualified for them. Men who saved lives. One man who caused the death of himself and two comrades. Men who served 25 years without ever seeing action. Men killed before they had even reached the front. All sorts.
The most unusual was the story of Walter Lancelot Merritt. His story was later expanded and turned into a book, “A German Tommy: The Secret of a War Hero” by my client Ken Anderson. I won’t tell you too much here as I want you to buy Ken’s book, but it is the most fabulous story of how an Australian boy of German background eventually absconded after he found he was being kept back by the army from fighting, falsified his details to re-enlist, became an officer, was decorated for gallantry – and then had to appeal to the King for a pardon so he could get the free ride home after the war!
Is there any advice you can give to people when they are beginning research projects themselves? And what would you say is a common mistake people make?
Do your homework first on who the soldier was. His age, addresses, next of kin, his job: they all had a bearing on his military story. The commonest mistake is to assume. For example, to assume that a man served with a local regiment. It can lead you a merry and fruitless dance.
Outside of all the work, What do you like to do in your spare time?
I am a big basketball and football fan. My son and I are season ticket holders at Leicester Riders, Britain’s oldest pro basketball club. I don’t go to football anywhere as often as I used to (mainly as surgery has left me unable to stand for long periods) but continue to follow Hereford FC and my boyhood and family tradition of Aston Villa. For the last year I have also been a volunteer Governor for our local NHS Foundation Trust. Oh, and I have to do stuff with my wife too!
If you could meet anyone from the Great War who would it be & why?
When writing my MA dissertation I discovered Brigadier-General (as he was then) Hereward Wake, a Baronet from Northamptonshire. I was very grateful for his son (also a soldier who earned the MC in WW2) who gave me permission to see his private papers. Wake was an officer of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps; a long-term staff and intelligence officer. He was appointed by Henry Wilson to become part of the staff working at the Supreme War Council. His views on the progress and strategy of the war are fascinating. I’d love to have a chat with him. Maybe once I pass through the pearly gates!
Is there a particular period of the Great War that interests you the most?
1918. Simple as that
Looking back on your life is there anything that you’d tell your younger self?
“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see” (Edgar Allen Poe). It stood me in great stead during my consultancy work and still applies to my research work today.
What book are you reading at the moment? And what’s your favourite ever?
Right now, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, actually. Favourite ever is “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass. A little odd I should choose these as I do not read a great deal of fiction!
Do you have any further projects planned in the future?
I have a cracking idea for a book – a work of fiction, as it happens. Whether I will ever do anything with it is another matter.
And some quick fire questions
Beer, Wine or Spirits?
I don’t drink a great deal these days but when I do it is beer.
Book or Kindle?
Book. I tried Kindle a couple of times but found it completely soul-less.
Full English or Fruit Salad?
I love both but have taught myself to go fruit salad.
Dog or Cat?
Dog, definitely. My best friend, our fox terrier Jenkins, passed away just over a year ago and I miss him terribly. He was my close and affectionate companion when I was recovering from cancer and serious surgery four years ago.
You may not believe this, but for me “Paddington 2” has beaten all others out of sight!
Your best holiday destination?
Not being one for sun, I’d say the Netherlands. Absolutely love it for its history, art, architecture, and way of life. Failing that, Germany.
Some absolutely brilliant answers Chris, I’m sure I echo everyone’s thoughts when I say it was really interesting hearing your story. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you again for agreeing to do this Q & A .