Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Remembering Lives of the First World War

Luke Smith, introducing the Imperial War Museum’s “Lives of the First World War” project, comments “The launch of Lives of the First World War really is just the beginning,” which sounds like something of an understatement when you consider they have no less than eight million lives to fill in.  My first acquaintance with the project has been daunting.  Although I know my grandfather’s full name and have seen it on his sign-up papers, the on-line archive has no record of this and records him only by his first initial – at least, I assume it’s him.  You do have to wonder whether the average person is going to be able to find their way through the maze of pages and instructions.  Nevertheless, full marks to the IWM for trying.

With Dan Snow as its “ambassador”, the project has a head start.  One of the most watchable presenters of television history around today, he is bound to attract public interest.  Yet once again the question looms, why do we want to carry out this exercise of remembrance?  Evidently, to paraphrase Siegfried Sassoon, we haven’t forgotten yet – and we don’t particularly want to.

I hark back to a post I made over a year ago, entitled “To commemorate or not to commemorate 1914?”  Well, the media are definitely commemorating it in no uncertain fashion, as are most societies with even a borderline interest in history and/or culture.  Even Dylan Thomas has been represented as a war poet, albeit one of the Second World War.  Although one would imagine that the public would be sick of hearing about already, interest in the subject seems to be enduring and more and more people are looking up their ancestors’ war records on-line.

It seems to me that people today – at least in the UK – feel somewhat guilty about what their ancestors experienced in past conflicts, specifically World War I, and are looking for a way to assuage their consciences by paying their respects, as well as being, quite simply, interested in what made them tick.  A spate of First World War novels and non-fiction books that have come to the fore in recent years are, I think, the key to this.  When the war was only a few decades in the past, it tended to be romanticised; people today, hardened by screen violence, nevertheless feel horror when confronted by the truth about what people went through a hundred years ago, still more so when there are photographs and newsreel films to bring home its full impact.

The swathe of TV programmes such as “Who do you think you are?” (which has spawned no less than 16 international versions, in countries from Australia to Poland) illustrates a growing interest in genealogy in general, as do the many periodicals and books on the subject, and the family history societies that exist throughout the world.  Websites such as ancestry.co.uk and findmypast.co.uk have proliferated and make the process simpler for those who are just beginning to take an interest in the subject.

Although you can add your own material to the IWM database free of charge, you have to pay a subscription in order to access official records and link them to the record for the individual you are interested in.  This is bound to be off-putting, particularly for older people who are averse to entering credit card information online.  Naturally I looked up Siegfried Sassoon and found that there are eight people already “remembering” him, so that’s eight people who have managed to follow the instructions so far.  I hope I will be able to figure it out myself in due course.  In the meantime, it would be interesting to hear from people who have already tried and even more interesting to hear whether anyone has found out anything they didn’t already know about the subject of their enquiries.


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