As the centenary of the First World War sees family history come of age Michael Noble asks, what opportunities does this offer?
Recent years have seen a revolution in family history and amateur genealogy. The possibilities created by broadband internet, the digitisation of official and parish records and the advent of crowdsourcing have created an unprecedented boom in the pursuit of private histories. The popularity of programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? testifies to the the mainstream success of this once esoteric hobby.
During the course of our project we have encountered people who have undertaken family history research and who have gathered documents, photographs and other artefacts. They are often older members of the household who have embarked on their project in retirement and have been motivated to do so because they have a personal memory of some of the individuals concerned, assuming a combatant birth year range from the 1860s to the turn of the twentieth century. As this generation ages, we will encounter a ‘succession problem’ of what to do with such collections that are too small and/or esoteric to be absorbed into mainstream collections. A related issue is the atomised nature of these items. They reside in spare rooms, on living room walls and in attics and could be hiding information useful to professional historians.
Two key problems:
1. How do we ensure the preservation of historically valuable collections?
2. How do we give access to them to professional historians and other researchers?
These are questions for family history in general but the centenary of the war can bring it into focus. The world wars, like items such as the 1901 census, act as ‘informational nodes’ for family historians and many of their researches converge on this event. This, combined with media coverage of the centenary and crowdsourcing schemes such as Operation War Diary and Lives of the First World War, offer an opportunity to test the value of family history and a chance to make it useful to mainstream historians without, I hope, robbing it of its very real value to those individuals who have been doing so much work in this area in their free time.
We are very keen to hear from people who have found or kept interesting First World War items and who are interesting in using them to foster a better understanding of the war, its effects and of the role of memory in family history and identity. We’re planning some events for 2015 that will help to ensure that these precious items continue to be of value as the war fades into history. If you have something to share, please get in touch.
Michael discovers a wonderful audio collection of wartime memories
We have mentioned before how the diminishing number of people who were alive during the First World War is having an impact on the role of memory in our understanding of it. Direct experience is becoming a rarer commodity and those snippets that we do have are of tremendous value.
Grouped under the headings ‘The Start of the War’, ‘Life on the Home Front’, ‘Death and Absence’ and ‘Aftermath’, the clips offer a personal insight into how the war was experienced by people in the Midlands. We can hear about peoples’ attitude to the Germans, ‘I knew the First World War was coming because my dad, right from when we was kids, was always talking about the Germans coming down the street’, about access to food in wartime: ‘The bread was almost black…there were a lot of shortages really…we had to make potato dripping for instance. My aunt was very good at contriving, she was a good cook’ and, dramatically, on unexpected Zeppelin attacks ‘All I heard was a thud on the door…the windows came in. Everything was in confusion’
Michael takes a look at a creative approach to remembrance…
This week I had the great pleasure to listen to a presentation given by Kate Pullinger of Bath Spa University. Kate, along with her colleague Neil Bartlett, spent much of this year working on the Letter to an Unknown Soldier project, which is a digital memorial scheme that invited people of 2014 to engage with someone from a century ago.
The project, which is supported by 1418 NOW, is based on Charles Jagger’s memorial statue, which is situated on platform 1 of Paddington Station and was unveiled by Viscount Churchill on Armistice Day 1922. The statue, which portrays the soldier in full battle gear, was designed to show him reading a letter from home. Pullinger and Bartlett’s idea was to invite people to imagine what they would write if they had sent that letter. What would they say?
They put out a call for people to send them their letters so that they could publish them on a dedicated website. The submission period was open from 28th June, the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to 4th August, a hundred years on from Prime Minister Asquith’s announcement that Britain had joined the war.
They received an astonishing response. Over 21,000 letters were submitted by people from all walks of life and from all over the world. Every single letter was read and published.
Although the project is a digital one, many people chose to write them by hand and post them in the traditional way, even if they had initially composed it on a computer. There is, Kate suggests, something in the act of putting pen to paper and physically posting it that makes people feel a closer connection to the recipient. Handwritten letters were scanned and are available to view online with every pen mark intact. A selection of the letters were later gathered for publication in a book that was released in November in time for Remembrance Sunday.
It’s a fascinating project that succeeds by prompting people to think about the effects and experience of war in a personal way. It can be difficult to know what to write to someone you have never met, and never will, and to do so across such a gap of time. As the thousands of writers can no doubt attest, it is worth the effort.