Historians at London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM) are trying to preserve the stories of 8 million people. That’s how many World War I stories they estimate are in danger of being lost to “living” memory. And, that’s only counting those who served the British Commonwealth.
The “Great War” began on June 28, 1914. We’ve lost the lives of World War I–the veterans, survivors, nurses, and doctors of that war. In addition, the next generation—the children that knew their stories, are also aging. These stories are in danger of being lost to history.
Lives of the First World War
The IWM is enlisting the help of family members, historians, and genealogists from all over the world to preserve and share these stories via a newly launched website. Lives of the First World War allows people to contribute research as well as explore record sets.
Matthew Fidler, the IWM’s marketing coordinator, explains, “The platform will bring together a wide range of record sets, including material from museums, libraries, archives and family collections, together in one place, enabling users to explore documents, link them together and start telling the stories of those who served in uniform and worked on the home front.” In addition to contributing stories and expertise, genealogists can also research loved ones at Livesofthefirstworldwar.org.
More than a Memorial
On Memorial or Veteran’s Day, we think back in gratitude on the service of our veterans. Stories resonate much more loudly than dry facts. What better way to express appreciation of their sacrifice than to preserve their stories?
If you’re like me and have an ancestor who served on the US side, you don’t have to wait until their stories are eligible to be included in the IWM’s site (They plan to include US soldiers at some point in the future). You can start telling and sharing these stories on your own—not just war stories, but the stories of their lives.
Explore Living Memory
There are great resources (like the National Archives in the USA) for exploring WWI service records. What isn’t indexed or digitized, however, is your relatives’ personal knowledge and letters that might have been sent home. Ask your relatives and explore old boxes. If you find old letters or post cards, scan them for the rest of the family to enjoy.
Put Your Loved One’s Stories into Context
World War I affected many countries, but the history for each country varies. For instance, New Zealand’s WW100 site points out, “Ten percent of our [New Zealand] then population of one million served overseas, of which more than 18,000 died and over 40,000 were wounded. Nearly every New Zealand family was affected.” Such context is a striking setting for your ancestor’s story.
It’s also interesting to see how pre-war vocational skills were (or weren’t) put to use. For instance, my grandfather was an auto mechanic. He was a “Wagoner” for a unit in France. In units with motor vehicles, auto mechanics would keep the vehicles running. Ironically, grandpa’s unit had no motor vehicles so he ended up caring for horses. But, that too, was a good use of his skills. My grandfather was one of the most patient and gentle men I’ve even known. I’m sure the horses benefited from his calm and caring demeanor during those horrible times.
The “Lives of World War I” includes anyone who served or was affected by the Great War. For citizens of Europe, it might be stories of service on the home front, enduring air raids, or serving as a nurse, doctor, or ambulance driver. It might include the emotional toil of the loss of a loved one or the fact that they came home forever changed.
What ideas do you have for commemorating the Lives of World War I?