Family stories at heart of project to preserve war diaries

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A new project is publishing online thousands of previously unseen Great War diaries, postcards and family documents. Andrew Robinson reports.

HANDED down through the generations like precious antiques, family memorabilia offers unique insights into lives torn apart by war.

History books are often devoted to the ‘big picture’ but it is personal stories which are being sought by the British Library’s northern outpost at Boston Spa, near Wetherby, which has joined forces with Europeana, Europe’s digital museum, library and archive.

The library’s Phil Spence has had his own family documents digitised for the project and is inviting people in Yorkshire to attend a family roadshow at Boston Spar on Saturday August 2.

Mr Spence’s grandfather, John Spence, volunteered for the ‘Hull Pals’ 10th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment after training as a school teacher in York.

He served in Egypt, France and Belgium before being badly injured at the battle of Oppy Wood on the Western Front. He survived in a shell hole with one leg mostly missing for two days until he was found during a ceasefire. He then spent two years recuperating at the Duchess of Connaught Canadian Military Hospital at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire. There he collected the Chronicles of Cliveden, a newspaper produced by patients. He embroidered a cover for the collection as part of his recovery.

These personal family keepsakes are being digitised and shared with the world via

Mr Spence said: “Many people in the region will have items connected with their family’s involvement in the Great War – passed down through the generations, but perhaps wanting to know more about what their full meaning and context was.

“We’re delighted to be hosting Europeana 1914-18 World War One family history roadshow in our newly-refurbished Reading Room at Boston Spa, and giving people the opportunity to discover more about their own family history. By sharing the digitised items online – as the Library does with so many of its collections – we hope to add many more previously untold stories to our shared understanding of this momentous event in the region’s history.”

Families are urged to bring along photographs, letters, diaries, film or audio recordings, together with the stories of whom they belonged to and why they are important to their families.

Historians from the York Museums’ Trust, Lancaster University and local history societies will be on hand to talk about the significance of finds, while staff from the British Library will digitise the objects which will be uploaded to the Europeana website.

Visitors on the day will also have a chance to discover the Reading Room, where they can consult a vast collection of research journals, books and periodicals, along with free access to more than eight million pages of digitised historic newspapers.

Europeana has been holding family history roadshows in more than 20 countries across Europe in the lead up to the centenary of the outbreak of war.

A project spokesman said: “Each individual story – that otherwise might never be told outside of the family – is essential to creating a unique global archive and perspective of the war.

“Through this archive, stories from countries across Europe will be shared online, accessed by others worldwide and saved for future generations.”

The British Library has digitised 10,000 items of a wide range of materials related to the First World War, from personal diaries and trench maps to poetry and photographs.

Jill Cousins, Europeana’s executive director, said: “We are asking the citizens of Europe to share their family stories and memories. Through digitisation, they can preserve them for future generations as records of a defining time in European history.” 

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