Parallels
10:25 am
Thu January 23, 2014

From The Trenches To The Web: British WWI Diaries Digitized

Originally published on Thu January 23, 2014 11:37 am

On the outskirts of London, in a basement room of the British National Archives, a historian delicately turns pages that have the brittle feel of dead leaves. Each is covered in text — some typewritten, some in spidery handwriting from a pen that scratched across the page 100 years ago.

"Saturday, the 26th of September, 1914," reads one. "The most ghastly day of my life. And yet one of my proudest, because my regiment did its job and held on against heavy odds."

This diary was written at the start of World War I. It's one of 1.5 million pages in the archives' collection. In honor of the war's centenary, archivists have now begun to make the entire collection available online.

"All the hedges are torn and trampled," reads another page. "All the grass trodden in the mud. Holes where shells have struck. Branches torn off trees by explosions. Everywhere the same hard, grim, pitiless sight of battle and war. I've had a belly full of it."

That entry, from Capt. James Patterson, was written on Sept. 16, 1914. It ends: "I must try and write to my mother now." Patterson died six weeks later.

Personal journals like Patterson's make up a small part of this collection. Most of this trove consists of official diaries, recording the day-to-day activities of British army units in the first world war. The scale of death is huge. Nearly a million British soldiers died in the war, half of them on the Western front in France and Belgium.

The daily routine was not all explosions and gunshots. These diaries include cold, clinical descriptions of marches, and of boredom. Sometimes they record sports, says historian William Spencer.

"It's usually soccer," he says. "So for example, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the first of July 1916, at least one regiment are known to have advanced towards the enemy kicking a football [soccer ball]."

"If you want to get your people pointing in the right direction," says Spencer, "you kick a football over the top, and they followed it."

Caroline James was an amateur family historian before she recently began working at the archives. Reading these accounts, she says, "really does change how you feel about it. I suppose they're no longer just images in photographs."

James unearthed the story of one of her own relatives in the World War I diaries, a man named Charles Alfred Hunt. She says that experience changed her perception of the war.

"You think, those were real men. They had mums, they had brothers and sisters and girlfriends and wives and children," James says.

The diary entry for the day her relative died sounds almost clinical.

"After a tiring march at 11:30 PM, B squadron captured a German car," the passage reads. "Casualties: 2nd Lt RFT Moore and 11 men missing."

One of those 11 men was her great-great-uncle. He died less than two weeks after arriving in France, at age 26.

Many older people in Britain knew veterans of World War I. But the diaries provide a different level of detail, says Michael Brookbank, 84. On a recent day, he was drinking a coffee in the archives cafeteria. He had come to learn more about his father.

"My father very rarely talked about the war, and I think that is common with most of the veterans of the war," says Brookbank. "The experiences that they went through and the conditions that they lived in were just something that, unless you were actually there, nobody could really comprehend."

Now that the diaries are online, anyone in the world can read them. At Operation War Diary, the British National Archives is recruiting what it calls "citizen historians."

It's a way of crowdsourcing the research, so people at home can classify and tag some of the 1.5 million pages. Of course, these diaries only tell one side of the story.

Spencer, the historian, hopes that someday Germany digitizes its remaining World War I diaries. That way, he says, someone would "be able to just pick a given day, say, in the autumn of 1918 and look at that one day through the records of all the belligerent parties."

Spencer imagines soldiers from Britain, America, France and Germany, each telling the same 100-year-old story from their own point of view.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It was 100 years ago, in 1914 the First World War broke out in Europe. There are many plans to mark the centenary; histories, documentaries, ceremonial parades. Britain's National Archives in London aimed for a remembrance that was more human scale. And even though the last British veteran past away four years ago, it's been able to tell the story of that long ago war in the words of those who fought it.

NPR's Ari Shapiro paid a visit.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: We're here in the basement of the British National Archives in the staff reading room. And introduce yourself for me.

WILLIAM SPENCER: I'm William Spencer. I'm the principle military specialist here at the National Archives at Kew.

SHAPIRO: And what have you got in front of us?

SPENCER: I have just one box of the diaries of the British Army for the whole of the First World War. And we've placed the first 300,000 of one and a half million pages on the Internet.

SHAPIRO: And though these pages are online, what you've got here is the actual ink from 100 years ago written on the pages. It says Fourth Battalion the Middlesex Regiment, August 1914.

These are the official diaries recording the day-to-day activities of British Army units in the First World War. The scale of death is huge. Nearly a million British soldiers died in the war, half of them on the Western Front in France and Belgium. But the daily routine was not all explosions and gunshots. These diaries include cold clinical descriptions of marches, of boredom. Sometimes they record sports.

SPENCER: It's usually soccer. That was the great thing for the British Army on the Western Front. So, for example, the first day of the Battle of Somme, the First of July 1916, at least one regiment are known to have advanced towards the enemy kicking a football.

SHAPIRO: I'm sorry, really?

SPENCER: Yep. So if you want to, in a way, get your people pointing in the right direction, you kick a football over the top, and they followed it and kicked it.

SHAPIRO: These are mostly unit diaries - more like official military daily agendas. But there are a few personal journals as well. Here's the diary of Captain James Patterson, September 16th, 1914.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) All the hedges are torn and trampled, all the grass trodden in the mud, holes where shells have struck, branches torn off trees by explosions; everywhere the same hard, grim, pitiless sight of battle and war. I've had a belly full of it.

SHAPIRO: This diary entry ends with: I must try and write to my mother now. Captain James Patterson died six weeks later.

CAROLINE JAMES: It really does change how you feel about it. I suppose they're no longer just images in photographs.

SHAPIRO: This is Caroline James. Though she works at the archives, we spoke by phone. She unearthed the story of one of her own relatives in the World War I diaries.

JAMES: You think those were real men. They had mums. They had brothers and sisters and girlfriends and wives and children.

SHAPIRO: On the day her relative died, the diary entry is almost clinical.

JAMES: (Reading) After a tiring march at 11:30 PM, B Squadron captured a German car and a tank. Casualties: Second Leftenant RFT Moore and 11 men missing.

SHAPIRO: One of those 11 men was her great-great uncle, Charles Alfred Hunt. He died less than two weeks after arriving in France. He was 26 years old.

Many older people here in Britain knew veterans of World War One. But the diaries provide a different level of detail. Michael Brookbank is 84, drinking a coffee in the archives cafeteria. He's come to here to learn more about his father.

MICHAEL BROOKBANK: My father very rarely talked about the war. And I think that is common with most of the veterans of the war. The experiences that they went through and the conditions that they lived in were just something that, unless you were actually there, nobody could really comprehend.

SHAPIRO: Now that the diaries are online, anyone in the world can read them. At OperationWarDiary.org, the archives recruit what they call citizen historians. It's a way of crowd-sourcing the research, so people at home can classify and tag some of the 1.5 million pages.

Of course, these diaries only tell one side of the story. Archivist William Spencer hopes that someday Germany may digitize its remaining World War I diaries.

SPENCER: So to be able to just pick a given day, say, in the autumn of 1918, and look at that one day through the records of all the belligerent parties.

SHAPIRO: Spencer says that that would be the ultimate - soldiers from Britain, America, France and Germany, each telling the same 100-year-old story from their point of view.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.