Whiz-bangs on the web – digital history and WW1

Scottish prisoners of war enjoying a bowl of soup. Courtesy, Great War in Color

Scottish prisoners of war enjoying a bowl of soup. Courtesy, The Great War in Color

What did you do in the Great Centenary, Daddy/Mummy?

It is already the UK’s most expensive commemoration in history thanks to £50 million of Government funding.  War was actually declared in August but the centenary started much earlier: broadcast and publishing schedules had already been awash with it for months.

Much has been spearheaded by Imperial War Museum (IWM) but virtually every school, library, and university  and  is hosting its own exhibition.

So anyone not knowing who Gavrilo Princip was or that the Kaiser was Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson must have just arrived from a different planet.

The most remarkable feature has been the level of public participation. A vast array of primary sources has been made available online – film, photographs, service records, newspapers and diaries.

French troops from North Africa on the Western Front. Courtesy The Great War in Color

French troops from North Africa on the Western Front. Courtesy The Great War in Color

Instead of passive consumers of history, ordinary people have become active creators of their own narratives, applying the historiographical principles developed by Lewis Namier at Manchester and WG Hoskins in Leicester to the internet age.

What this has done is to humanise history. We now know the stories behind the names on war memorials. World War One is no longer the school dinner menu of great powers and generals with a seasoning of Sasoon and the Somme.

The evidence for this is in the explosion of social media where hundreds of local groups are using Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest not only to disseminate digitised archive material but to share and learn from others with similar interests.

Exploring and harnessing the potential of digital history had already gained momentum, particularly in genealogy, but the centenary has elevated it to quite a different scale.

Two shining examples for me are Alan Cumming, not the actor but a landscape gardener, who has championed the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and Sue Light  who has opened up the history of military nursing to a vast new audience.

1930 poster for All Quiet on the Western Front

1930 poster for All Quiet on the Western Front

There are precedents for this.  All Quiet on the Western Front set a new benchmark not just for talkies but Hollywood’s portrayal of war.  For those who remember the crackling print shown on TV, the newly restored digital film and soundtrack evokes the full shocking impact it must have had in 1930 when it won two Oscars.

What do we want with eggs and ham?

What do we want with eggs and ham?

Similarly, Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War transformed musical theatre as well as public perceptions of the conflict.

The centrepiece of the 50thanniversary was The Great War which became a landmark in television documentary production with 26 weekly programmes featuring interviews with actual survivors.  It was the brainchild of Alasdair Milne, future BBC director general, and colleagues on the Tonight programme.  The series also gave the first job to an 18 year old whipper snapper who didn’t fancy going to university – Max Hastings.

This year the range of inquiry has known no bounds.  We know far more about the contributions of nurses, civilians at home, and soldiers from across the British Empire.

Otto Lais - self portrait  15 years after his time on the Somme

Otto Lais – self portrait 15 years after his time on the Somme

Each country tends to view the conflict through its own prism but much wider understanding has been opened up by collaborations like Europeana 1914-1918 and Centenary News offering masses of primary source material from other nations.

Beware – perspectives can change.  For me, this came in a particularly moving account of how the Somme was viewed from the other side where  Otto Lais recalls the piteous slaughter of the advancing Tommies, and how the Germans had to use their own urine when machine gun coolant water ran out.

Another poignant moment was seeing a British Pathé clip (just 40 seconds) showing the expressions of William Angus VC back home in Carluke sharing a smile with James Martin, the man whose life he saved.


So what are the downsides of this Great War fixation? Have other, and just as worthy, areas of study been marginalised or forgotten?  There may be some merit in this argument, although it is founded on the appetite for history being inelastic, which it clearly isn’t.

Is the extra funding this year ephemeral? Yes; museums and libraries still face drastic budget  cuts– witness the petition to save the IWM library. And there is a wider danger of digital becoming a substitute rather than an adjunct of physical collections which are the prime treasures.

Will the public be turned off by Great War overload and then history in general? I don’t detect any signs of that.

It won’t be over by Christmas. We have four more years ahead, like it or not.  But we can at least switch off, a choice not open to any of our forebears 100 years ago.

Here’s how the Armistice was celebrated:



Categories: digital history, gems from the archive, history on the web

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