You don’t have to go to Britain’s Imperial War Museum to sample their First World War collections. The museum has developed a robust online presence to tell the many stories of the war that permanently affected nations, armies and ordinary people.
Voices of the First World War is a series of 20-minute narrative podcasts edited from 20,000 hours of interviews the museum did decades ago with veterans. Podcast 27, for example, gives a vivid and moving account of the battles at Vimy and Arras in 1917, using linked reminiscences by British, Canadian and French troops who were there. All 43 podcasts can be heard for free at 1914.org, which also includes an extensive First World War centenary calendar and links to commemoration projects throughout the Commonwealth.
The IWM has also launched an ambitious crowd-sourced mass biography project, called Lives of the First World War (livesofthefirstworldwar.org). The aim is to get people who have memorabilia, family connections with veterans or social memories to contribute to profiles of up to eight million individuals, based on databases such as war service records. Photographs and letters can be uploaded, and entries cross-linked, to make connections between veterans and within communities. As the project evolves, says the IWM’s Luke Smith, it may even be possible to plot an individual soldier’s daily position in the conflict, by mapping his identity onto detailed diaries maintained by every battalion in the field.
This long-term project will be evidence-based, Smith insists, noting that crowd-sourced histories that depend solely on memories “do not have the same longevity. Our collections are mined by historians, and our data will be, too.” The key is to engage a large mass of people, and for that, the prospects bid fair: In the first month after its launch in May, 25,000 registered users signed up.
It may seem more logical to focus such a project on a more recent conflict, with better access to living memory, but Smith says that official records for later wars are not publicly available. The website offers several biographical vignettes – including that of a “chocolate soldier” who kept up a front-line correspondence with a family that sent sweets to the trenches – to show what is possible.
Crowd-sourcing is a new term, but IWM began doing it as soon as the museum opened in 1917. An appeal on the back cover of ration books distributed in 1918, says Smith, solicited every Briton’s wartime mementos, letters and diaries, “even if they be of trifling character.” Now, he says, the IWM has the digital resources to bring such items together for all to see.