Tuesday, January 14, 2014

War diaries online

The BBC were featuring this news item quite heavily on their Breakfast programme this morning: soldiers' diaries from the First World War are now appearing online.

The project, run by the National Archives, aims to digitise some of the 1.5 million diary pages they hold in their archives.  Apparently they've managed about a fifth so far, which still represents [hasty calculator check] around 300,000 pages of material describing life on the front lines between 1914 and 1918.

This represents a fantastic resource for anyone searching for their family history, who can read Great Uncle Albert's experiences first-hand.  But it's also a valuable tool for authors wanting to write about the period.  I know I'd have found it invaluable when I was researching the Great War for Gleams of a Remoter World, since the historical element of the novel dates from that time, and one of the main characters was a serving soldier at the Somme.

One thing I hadn't realised was that each unit was required to keep a diary of daily events.  This is obviously why so much material survives.  The reason it can be released at last is that there are no longer any surviving veterans of the war, the last one having died in 2011 (and the last British combat survivor in 2009).  Out of that rather sad statistic comes a valuable and fascinating source of information on life in the trenches, and presumably, life in general, in the early twentieth century.

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