University of Leeds
Date accessed: 9 December, 2023
The centenary of the First World War has acted as a catalyst for intense public and academic attention. One of the most prominent manifestations of this increasing interest in the conflict is in the proliferation of digital resources made available recently. Covering a range of national and internationally-focused websites, this review makes no pretence at comprehensiveness; indeed it will not cover the proliferation of locally-oriented sites such as the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project, or those on neutral territories like the Switzerland and the First World War. Instead, this review will offer an introduction to some of the major repositories of information for both public and academic audiences seeking further understanding of the history of the First World War.
The Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London has been designated by the British government as the focal point of British commemorations of the war. The museum itself has been the recipient of a £35million refurbishment, and the IWM’s Centenary Website acts as a collecting point for multiple regional, national and international cultural and educational organisations through the First World War Centenary Partnership. This aspect of the site is a real triumph, providing a huge, regularly updated events calendar which demonstrates both the geographical spread and the variety of the cultural and academic contributions scheduled to take place over the course of the centenary.
Built upon the stunning visual collections held by the museum, the website contains a number of introductory articles on a wide range of subjects. In addition to the relatively familiar subjects of trenches, weaponry and poets, the website also provides contributions on the less-traditional aspects of the conflict. The varied roles taken by women, the ‘sideshow’ theatres of war outside the Western Front, and the myriad animals used by the armed forces are also given featured. Although the many beautiful photographs and images from the IWM itself are individually recorded, the lack of a ‘further reading’ section to supplement the brief written descriptions is a weakness, particularly as the site is clearly geared towards those at an early stage in their research into the conflict (the site contains a number of advertisements for interactive talks at IWM sites aimed at students at KS3 and above).
The keystone of the IWM’s contribution to the centenary, however, is the Lives of the First World War project. Lives aims to create a ‘permanent digital memorial to more than eight million men and women from across Britain and the Commonwealth’ before the end of the centenary. Built upon the foundation of official medal index cards, the site relies upon contributions from the public, inputting data, photographs and information to help construct the ‘memorial’. Launched in February 2014, the database is currently sparsely populated, with very little added to the life stories of the majority of soldiers. Concentration at the moment appears to be on the more ‘celebrity’ soldiers of the war, men such as Captain Noel Chavasse and Wilfred Owen, upon whom significant research has already been undertaken. Although a search option is available to find individual soldiers by name, unit, or service number, the limitations of the search engine render a comparison of soldiers from the same city or from a shared workplace impossible. Lives is undoubtedly an ambitious project; however at this time there is little available for genealogists or academic researchers on the myriad stories still locked in attics and archives across Britain.
A potential solution to this challenge lies at the heart of the pan-European collection at Europeana 1914–1918. Launched in January 2014, the website contains material from 20 European countries divided into broad categories (remembrance, propaganda, aerial warfare, etc.) and searchable by the resource type. Such an approach is welcome, allowing for a reasonable degree of filtering to take place (necessary as a result of the uncoordinated presentation of the material within each section) in order to discover relevant items. At time of writing however, all links to view material provided by the British Library were broken which, combined with the size of thumbnail images for text documents, led to frustration. In addition to official documents, the site also aims to digitise personal papers and memorabilia held by the families of servicemen via a series of family history roadshows held in 17 nations across Europe. This is an excellent approach to the key difficulty of pooling together resources which individual families will often be reticent to part with for sentimental reasons, and the list of upcoming events prominently displayed on the site’s home page demonstrates the geographical spread of the website’s aim: alongside the UK, multiple events will take place in Greece, Romania and Italy over the course of the summer. For those unable to attend such events, but with the requisite equipment and IT skills, material can be uploaded directly onto the website.
Naturally, the accuracy of such public contributions will require careful attention from researchers prior to use, however the implementation of a site-wide Creative Commons licence should afford scope for previously unseen material to find a wider audience as a result of Europeana’s endeavours.
Returning to an Anglo-centric focus, and building upon material contributed by the Europeana project, the British Library has released its own First World War website. As with the first two sites reviewed, the Library’s resources are collated into broad themes based upon the political, military and social history of the conflict. And, as with the other sites previously mentioned, the site is dotted with an impressive array of visual accompaniments to the main articles. The unique selling point for the British Library however is the impressive quality and depth of those articles. Written by a combination of internationally renowned scholars such as David Stevenson, and subject-specific experts such as Santanu Das (on the experiences of colonial troops) and Susan Grayzel (the roles of women), the articles offer readers an introduction to the conflict based not upon ‘myths’ and popular perceptions but upon the latest academic scholarship. The series of articles on the historical debates surrounding the First World War is particularly welcome in light of the ongoing trend of mainstream debates in the run up to August 2014. Outlining many of the controversies which have dominated the mainstream commentary on the centenary, and offering links to both related items within the Library’s collection and to external sites of interest, Annika Mombauer’s digest of the origins of the war is a notable example of the strengths of the British Library site. Cataloguing the various historiographical shifts in opinion over the past 100 years, from contemporary views in 1914 itself through Versailles and the post-war ‘consensus’, to Fischer and the modern debate sparked by Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, Mombauer presents the key movements in a concise, intelligible fashion alongside full footnotes to allow for further investigation. With only 500 contemporary documents available on the website, ranging from French propaganda maps to a pamphlet promoting the use of Esperanto from 1916, the inclusion of these essays makes the site a valuable calling point for researchers and teachers alike.
The BBC has also enlisted the support of senior academics, alongside the more instantly recognisable faces of journalists and presenters, on their hugely impressive website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww1 . Linked to the iPlayer service, and utilizing a combination of audio, visual and textual resources, the BBC have created a website with a broad range of materials aimed at both the relative novice and the more informed viewer. The site itself is arranged in the same manner as the BBC’s news website, making navigation simple for anyone familiar with that site. The centrepiece of the BBC’s contribution, a series of articles under the banner of World War I at Home, follows the same route as the other sites already mentioned, grouping stories together under broad themes such as technology, animals, and arts and media; however the driving force behind the project lies in the local-oriented focus of the articles attached. Commencing at launch in February 2014 with 223 ‘stories’ (both audio and visual), with further releases staggered over the coming year, World War I at Home concentrates upon the presentation of ‘local stories from a global conflict’. Viewers are encouraged to filter stories linked to individual regions, towns or even postcodes, resulting in a commendably broad range of stories which emphasize the varied nature of contributions made by British people and the dangers of attempting to ascribe any common experience to those grouped together under the umbrella term of ‘home front’. The postcode B30 alone highlights (among others): the experience of a Quaker and conscientious objector, Douglas Maynard; Birmingham’s largest war hospital located at the University of Birmingham; and the Castle Bromwich Aerodrome, significant in the aviation history of both world wars, all presented by local journalists and assisted by academics and historians to provide the necessary context and information.
Ranging in length from two to ten minutes, these are bite-sized introductions based primarily upon locally sourced material, to numerous topics. The focus on the ‘home front’ has led to a reduction in stress upon the thoroughly investigated – some might suggest overexposed – subjects of mud, trenches and poetry, to instead illuminate the complexity, and the enormity, of the First World War’s impact on British life. Taken in conjunction with the BBC guides to explore WW1 presented by historians (such as Gary Sheffield), television presenters (Gareth Malone, Matt Baker) and BBC journalists (Kate Adie, Rory Cellan-Jones), and iPlayer exclusive material such as the interviews used in the 1964 documentary series The Great War, the BBC’s online First World War offering is an impressive, immersive collection, and a useful adjunct to the corporation’s so far largely uninspiring television output surrounding the centenary.
The websites discussed so far all share a focus upon attracting the attention and interest of those with relatively little prior knowledge of the conflict. However, for those approaching the centenary with an established professional interest, the International Society for First World War Studies’ website http://www.firstworldwarstudies.org/ provides a location for those with a more recognisably academic approach to the war. Created in 2001 by Jenny Macleod and Pierre Purseigle, the society is an international network which organizes or sponsors conferences, seminars and workshops, and is responsible for the publication of a journal, First World War Studies, and a series of edited volumes based on conference proceedings. As a result of the society’s aims, the website is understandably focused upon the promotion of upcoming conferences and the promotion of members’ research interests rather than upon the accumulation of documents. This, coupled with the relative dearth of information on individual members at present means there is little to reward repeat visits to the site. However, the society does provide one essential resource for researchers both new and experienced, a colossal – an expanding – collaborative bibliography of reference materials associated with the First World War.
Across an exhaustive list of subjects (at time of writing there are 36 categories, many including numerous subcategories) the bibliography contains nearly 4000 references in a multitude of languages. Such a resource is indispensable for students both new to the subject and researchers wishing to broaden their knowledge base, and with frequent updates will only continue to grow in the coming years.
The International Society is not the only manifestation of the academy’s interest in showcasing current scholarship, however. The University of Exeter’s First World War in the Classroom is one such example, presenting the findings of an AHRC-funded project led by Catriona Pennell, which examined the links between education and the manner in which the war was both perceived and commemorated. The final report, available online, demonstrate the depth of the study and provides a comprehensive discussion of the many challenges involved in the teaching of the First World War, both in History and English classes.
The poets who continue to form the basis of many schoolchildren’s introduction to the study of the conflict also provide the resources which underpin the University of Oxford’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive. The name of the site is, however, something of a misnomer. Although poems (and links to archival collections) from the likes of Owen, Sassoon, Graves and Jones are available, only ten poets and authors are featured, leading to the omission of significant names like Brooke, McCrae and the hugely popular John Oxenham. What the site does provide is a remarkable collection of publications from the war itself, including digitised copies of the Craiglockheart Hospital journal The Hydra, and links to the university’s sister project, the Great War Archive. Now linked to the Europeana project discussed above, the archive contains over 6,500 items contributed by members of the public in 2008. As a result, the vast majority of material provided relates to British soldiers, the most of whom have little to no relationship with the poets showcased on the main site. With the final project report for the poetry digital archive having been written in January 2010, and the focus upon contributing to the larger Europeana project, it would appear that the archive is now effectively closed for entries and will not be further expanded.
Fortunately, the same cannot be said for other subject-specific websites, of which two will be addressed here. Both of these sites are not university-affiliated, but demonstrate both the long-standing public interest in the conflict and the vast array of knowledge possessed by those outside of the academy.
The recent BBC drama The Crimson Field built upon a welcoming increase in recent interest upon the contributions of women to the First World War, an interest in which the owner of Scarletfinders, Sue Light, has played a prominent role in fostering. Containing a combination of introductory essays distinguishing the various nursing services; reference guides for genealogists and researchers; and a series of transcripts from official documents held at archives such as the Imperial War Museum and the National Archives, Scarletfinders is a detailed, comprehensively well-researched and intuitive resource for both complete novices and those wishing to supplement an existing interest.
The same can be said of Chris Baker’s website dedicated to the British Army of 1914–18, The Long, Long Trail. A truly vast resource based on decades of research, the Long, Long Trail provides a detailed account of the structure, organization and regulations which shaped the British Army, the battles across the globe in which it fought, and a comprehensive guide to genealogists and researchers on how best to find and interpret the official records generated during the conflict. In addition, the website provides transcripts of items such as the despatches written by successive commanders-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig, an impressive – but by no means comprehensive – selection of campaign maps digitised from various sources, and a colossal and knowledgeable forum boasting over 44,000 members. For anyone requiring further information on any aspect of the British Army in the First World War, the website is unsurpassed in terms of the quantity and quality of information available.
The existence of such sites, supplemented by the articles and archives collected within the pages of the other sites discussed in this review, demonstrates admirably the size and impact of the First World War upon those who fought it, and those who lived through its consequences. Within the pages of each of these sites are contained numerous artefacts, articles and images which will inform and educate those for whom the centenary of the First World War will not be primarily viewed as a time to remember those of previous generations, but instead as an opportunity to discover the experiences of those generations. As a result, the perceptible shift away from the traditional ‘myths’ of the conflict – of trenches, mud, futility and so forth – in the collections discussed above, and a move towards a more comprehensive and comparative understanding of the conflict is entirely welcome. Although some of the sites included in this review are restricted in scope to a British-centric approach, such limitations are not universal. The British Library and the Imperial War Museum, alongside the BBC and most notably the Europeana project, are successfully ensuring that the British contribution will be set within the context of what was a global war, not rooted purely in the armies such as that recorded by the Long, Long Trail, but within the societies and Empires from which the soldiers, nurses, poets, conscientious objectors and myriad others came.