Lives of the First World War: Retaining personal connections to the conflict using new technology

Lives of the First World War homepage
The home page of the IWM’s livesofthefirstworldwar.org

The year 2014 saw the start of a four year long centenary commemoration of the First World War. Remembrance programmes, local events, educational trips to the battlefields and a nationwide ‘lights out’, have all been part of the 100 year anniversary of the conflict so far. These acts of communal and shared remembering can be described as forms of ‘collective memory’. This is a concept that was coined by Maurice Halbwachs to understand the  social ‘framing’ of the past. Collective remembrance has been developed by Jay Winter to describe forms of ‘public recollection’ of the past and is frequently used in the analysis of the memory of war. Collective memories can be shaped by governments, media professionals, historians, families, museums and archivists to name but a few. My own research surrounds the study of these forms of public history, noting how and why they change over time and the efforts of groups to tell alternative discourses of the past.

The current centenary of the First World War is a perfect case study to examine how forms of public history are being used to reshape the history of the conflict in modern day Britain. Despite the family ties which have enabled the war to remain an important event in British history, redefining the war to appeal to younger generations in particular has been noted as a challenge. Dan Todman outlined how the younger generations ‘have grown up with well established myths of the Great War’ but they ‘have no personal connection to it’.

It seems that organisations such as the Imperial War Museums are turning to new technologies to enable the public to gain a greater connection to the personal histories of the Great War. Their Lives of the First World War project in particular, is innovative in its blend of memorial culture and internet genealogy. When the IWM was originally formed, it took care of artifacts, letters and medals donated by the relatives of deceased soldiers.  The original premise of housing the items belonging to ordinary people and making personal histories of war part of a national story, is prevalent in the aims of this new online endeavour. Users are encouraged to add their own memories and actively input documents and images to the individual pages, one for each participant in the war.

Acting as a sort of Facebook for the First World War generation, Lives of the First World War is something that could potentially enable a greater connection to the conflict amongst younger generations, due to its interactivity and future use as an online memorial and family history database. The platform evidently taps into the popularity of online genealogy. As Jerome De Groot notes the web allows for ‘collaborative genealogy’ where users can share, discuss and add documents as part of their research using websites such as Ancestry and Find My Past. Lives of the First World War adopts this model by creating profiles for every person with added medal roll card details and the ability for users to add further digitalised documents and collaborate with other users.

The project also serves to add to the original meaning of the Great War memorial by including all service men and women from Britain and the Commonwealth who participated in the conflict. It also includes all those that survived after the conflict. Peter Barham ‘excavated’ the forgotten stories of shell shocked soldiers of the Great War in his book Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War. One of his goals was to include these men in the public understanding of the conflict, as he feared remembrance of those that had survived the war had been overshadowed by the memorials to the dead. Lives of the First World War also addresses this issue by creating an online memorial to all. The homepage of the website states ‘we believe that each and every one of the 8 million who served in the Great War deserve to be remembered’. By forming a memorial such as this, the apparent divisions which existed between the remembrance of those that survived and those that died can be removed. It also has potential to increase awareness of the Commonwealth soldiers who served as they are also added to the database. This is clearly an aim across many organisations working on centenary projects and is outlined in the British Futures Report.  The inclusion of Commonwealth soldiers aids to reshape the memory of the war to fit with the heritage of a modern multicultural community who may have ancestors from other nations who participated in the war.  This ‘permanent digital memorial‘  fits the society in which it is being created, just as the stone memorials did in 1919, which were designed to enable personal and communal grieving in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Although that the website seems to be an innovative way in which to create a memorial for all, there are some ambiguities present in the design. Perhaps inspired by the popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, users are able to ‘Remember’ each individual soldier with a click of a button. This tool is markedly similar to the popular ‘Like’ buttons on social media websites. It is unclear what purpose this button serves. Is it to highlight famous soldiers who inevitably have thousands of users ‘Remembering’ them such as Siegfried Sassoon? Is it fair that servicemen and women who have no living relatives and whose pages have not been added to, are to be potentially forgotten on the website as in real life? A sort of popularity contest for who is being most ‘remembered’ is not the best way in which to promote remembrance in an equal way. Yet, given the connection to social media websites, it is probable that the ‘Remember’ button is simply another feature to try and attract younger audiences who could interact with the lives of their ancestors in a familiar way to how they present their own lives using social media.

This initiative by the IWM clearly represents an active attempt to sustain the collective remembrance of the conflict in Britain for the future using the latest technology. As Winter and Sivan emphasise, the memory of war is ‘dependent on people to act’ and to continue ‘mobilising resources which keep memory alive’.  If history is not retold in this way by groups in society, historic events can be forgotten. The Imperial War Museums are clearly using the centenary to ensure the younger generations in Britain can find ways to interact with the history of a conflict which is now outside of living memory. The overall popularity of the site is unclear. Is it reaching the target audience? Clearly, school groups have been encouraged to fill in the profiles of soldiers from their locality. Family historians have also added photographs and memories, but many soldiers’ lives have not been added to by living relatives. Perhaps the true value of the initiative will be revealed in 2019 after the end of the commemorations. Although there are uncertainties surrounding the website, it represents an attempt by the leading organisation of war remembrance to engage with younger audiences and reshape the memory of the war in a more interactive and inclusive way.

Harriet Beadnell is a PhD student at the University of York and a graduate of the MA in Public History. Her research explores the role, representation and identity of Second World War veterans since 1945.