From no man's land to a people's memorial

Olga Wojtas tours a digital archive of First World War material compiled by members of the public

July 17, 2008

In March 1918, George Cavan, a company sergeant-major in the Highland Light Infantry, was at a Scottish training camp when the order came to leave for France. The train he was on with his troops went through his home station in Carluke, but it did not stop there. He threw a matchbox on to the station platform with a note to his family: "Dearest Wife and Bairns. Off to France, love to you all, Daddy."

Someone picked up the matchbox and delivered the message, but Sergeant-Major Cavan was killed only days after arriving in France.

Photographs of the matchbox and its poignant contents are now part of a unique archive at the University of Oxford, created as part of the Joint Information Systems Committee's £22 million, six-year digitisation project to create a vast online research resource "spanning centuries, disciplines and sources".

Under Oxford's Great War Archive project, run by the faculty of English and computing services, members of the general public have helped amass a major new digital collection, expected to eventually include about 10,000 items, much of which was at risk of being lost.

Exploiting the rise of digital photography and home internet access, the project has attracted thousands of volunteers from the general public and has been likened to a 21st-century version of the Mass Observation social research programme started in 1937, which created an extensive permanent resource on British life in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Oxford initiative has provided academics and the public with an unprecedented research resource, and is set to provide a model for others in the sector to follow.

"Many people have scanners and digital cameras and are web savvy, and we can get together big digital collections. We are demonstrating that this can be done, and people are willing to do it because they want these things to be recorded," said Stuart Lee, the project director.

The Oxford team built what Dr Lee describes as "a very simple system": a website,, that is open to members of the public.

"To make a contribution, they (could) attach a file or type in a story and press 'submit' and that's it. It goes into a mini-catalogue, and we put it into a main searching and browsing system," he said.

For those who are less technologically adept, the project team held five open days at libraries around the country, when people could bring material to be scanned.

The response to the call for material, principally publicised through radio and major libraries, surpassed the project team's expectations.

The site closed to contributions on 30 June, but by early June it had assembled more than 5,000 items, from letters and diaries to photographs and souvenirs, many of which were in danger of being lost. Dr Lee said the project team has accumulated a large number of unpublished memoirs written by soldiers.

The project has only three full-time staff, and no research team could itself have amassed material on such a scale. "We're going to have a massive archive, maybe getting towards 10,000 items by the end, and a lot of it is stuff that no one's ever seen. It will be a major resource for researchers into the First World War," he said.

"However insignificant, each of these personal items has a part to play in helping today's generation to understand what the First World War meant to ordinary people: the soldiers, their families and the workers back in Britain who kept the country going."

Now that the submissions have closed, researchers are busy checking each item, confirming that it is genuine. Stories and anecdotes will be noted as unverified, but still made available. The archive will be available for anyone to use, free of charge, from 11 November this year, the 90th anniversary of the Armistice.

But Dr Lee hopes the work will continue. "We think this is such a success that we may go for further funding to save a lot more material out there, which we know we would get."

The First World War is probably the most distant period for which the general public will have archival material, he said. But he envisages the Oxford template being used to create archives for subsequent historic periods.

People may have treasured possessions that they are keen to hang on to, but the Oxford project has shown that many are eager to have these recorded and shared with a wider audience, he said.

The archive also offers a memorial to those who died.

William Robert Jones, a miner in the Rhondda Valley, was a musician who enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers, where he was a bandsman and stretcher bearer. In 1918, because of the many casualties suffered during the German offensives, he was attached to the 10th Battalion of the Royal West Surrey Regiment, known as "The Queen's", and reported missing, presumed dead, shortly afterwards. But because he was new to The Queen's his paperwork had not been processed and his death was never recorded. Now he has a permanent memorial.

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