Memory bank full of stories from trenches and home front

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The Imperial War Museum’s ambitious new online archive will be a fitting permanent memorial to those involved in the First World War, says Chris Bond.

WHEN the Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917, the First World War was still raging.

The aim of this new museum was to record “the toil and sacrifice of every individual affected by war”. Given the scale of the conflict that was happening at the time and the devastating wars still to come, it was perhaps an impossible task. But as the centenary of the start of the Great War approaches IWM (Imperial War Museums) has launched what it hopes will become a “digital memorial” to those caught up in a war that was supposed to end all wars.

Lives of the First World War went online last week, listing the records of more than 4.5 million men and 40,000 women who served with the British army overseas. Many of the entries contain little more than people’s names but IWM wants families to add their own photographs, stories and memories to help build this permanent online memorial.

Luke Smith, IWM’s digital lead for the war’s centenary, hopes that in five years time the site will contain the stories of eight million men and women. “It’s a huge project and no museum has ever tried to do anything like this before,” he says.

“The Imperial War Museum has been telling these stories for almost a hundred years but you couldn’t build a hall of memories big enough to hold eight million stories, but we can now.”

Among the stories collected already are those of Sister Martha Aitken who served in the Territorial Force Nursing Service in clearing stations and military hospitals in France and Flanders, and Albert Tatersall, one of many young men from the north of England who lined up for the attack on the now infamous first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.

Millions of others will be added to the website in the coming months including the names of members of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy, as well as all those involved from the Commonwealth.

“Everybody can contribute to Lives of the First World War, whether they choose to simply remember someone online, upload a picture from their family album, share a story passed down through generations, or connect official records to build a full and factual picture of what happened to that person throughout the war,” Smith adds.

It’s not only soldiers’ lives that are important, with the idea being to cover every aspect of the conflict. “The home front was very important, there were around 500,000 women who worked in munitions factories, there are those who worked on the railways, the fishermen from Hull who faced a war of attrition with the U-boats and the volunteer nurses,” says Smith.

“There were also 17,000 conscientious objectors who refused the call to serve and they were very brave in their own way.”

Professor Alison Fell, who leads the University of Leeds’s Legacies of War centenary project, says the new online site is a clever way of using modern technology to bring the past to life. “It will flesh out the lives of ordinary men and women who served in a wide variety of ways and on different fronts.”

She believes it’s also important in telling the story of the war through those who matter most – the people who lived through it.

“Many of the letters, photos and diaries from the First World War are still in boxes in attics. Telling individual stories helps deepen our knowledge and nuance myths and stereotypes about the war.

“For instance, 88 per cent of mobilised men survived, which is a higher percentage than most people imagine. But this will also help to give a sense of the enormous range of tasks needed to keep an army fighting – the cooks, railway men, medics and clerks.”

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