Researching and Remembering the First World War

Researching and Remembering the First World War
By Dr Jen Novotny, University of Glasgow

The First World War centenary is the perfect opportunity to delve into family and local history: what was life like for our ancestors 100 years ago? During the centenary, many archives, libraries, museums, and community groups are exploring their First World War heritage, meaning that a lot of material is being made more widely available for the first time. Researching people of the past is itself an act of remembrance - we rediscover individuals whose lives were impacted by the war and we make their stories available for the next hundred years. All of these individual stories, uncovered by citizen historians throughout the UK and beyond, can reinforce or challenge how we think of the First World War. The many different voices and experiences of past individuals help us to attempt to understand the enormity of the 1914-18 conflict. This post explores a number of exciting projects that are shedding new light on the war and the people whose lives it impacted. 

Stories behind the names

Like many other institutions and communities, the University of Glasgow looking more closely at its history during the First World War. Glasgow University’s Great War is a research project that explores the experiences of the university community during the war. Over 4,000 members of the extended University of Glasgow community served in the war and 761 lost their lives. This includes students, academic, administrative and support staff, as well as many individuals who trained at the university’s Officers’ Training Corps. The Great War Project documents the lives of individuals who were impacted by the war, as well as reflecting more broadly upon the ways in which the First World War changed university life. The project builds upon the university’s First World War Roll of Honour, compiled during the war years and resulting in the carved memorial tablets in the University Chapel. 

One of the memorial tablets in the University of Glasgow Chapel

In 2005, the Roll of Honour was digitised and made publicly available online. Throughout the centenary, more biographies are being added than ever before. Students, staff, and volunteers at the University are contributing content to a project blog, sharing their on-going work and archival discoveries. In addition to this, each individual on the WWI Roll of Honour is remembered on or near the 100th anniversary of their death at the University’s daily morning prayer service, after which a poppy cross is planted in a memorial garden. All of the University’s WWI events are free and open to the public. For a full schedule of the morning prayer services, as well as talks and other events, visit the University’s WWI commemoration website.

Poppies in the University of Glasgow memorial garden

Connected communities

Then as today, the University of Glasgow was widely connected with ties throughout greater Glasgow, the West of Scotland and beyond. We work closely with a number of other centenary projects, from local schools like Govan High, to Inverclyde’s Great War and the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis, to the much farther afield Canadian Letters and Images Project, to share information on individuals who appear on multiple Rolls of Honour.  If you have information to contribute to the Roll of Honour, or want to learn more about using the University archives to conduct your own research, please don’t hesitate to get in touch

Digging In

The University of Glasgow is working in partnership with Glasgow City Council and Northlight Heritage on the Heritage Lottery Funded Digging In project. Digging In is recreating both German and Allied trenches in Pollok Park. Trench construction and design is based on archival research and archaeological excavation on the Western front. The trenches are an educational resource for local schools and host regular public open days for all to visit and learn more about the technology of the trenches.

 Trench construction on Pollok Park

Erskine 1916-2016

2016 marks the centenary of Erskine, originally founded as the Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers. Today Erskine is still there to care for ex-Service men and women. The University of Glasgow is working with Erksine to explore its heritage, supported by a grant from the Wellcome Trust. This includes digitising and transcribing the hospital’s original patient intake registers. If you would like to volunteer on this transcription project contact the University of Glasgow Archives.

Women’s Peace Crusade

In 2016 we are working with the Glasgow Women’s Library and community volunteers to explore the women’s peace crusade, mount an exhibition, and recreate a peace march. This work is supported by the Voices of War and Peace research network, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Explore their website to learn more about five main themes: Belief and the Great War, Childhood, Cities at War, Commemoration, and Gender and the Home Front. 

Learn more about WWI

Explore Glasgow City Council’s WWI website to find out more about life in Glasgow in WWI and individuals from the city’s Roll of Honour. Contribute your own research and keep up to date on events throughout the centenary. Learn more widely about communities all over Scotland at Scotland’s War

Get involved

If you’re not sure where to start with First World War research, attend a military history open day, hosted by the Scottish Military Research Group (SMRG) or one of the other family history workshops at the Mitchell Library to see examples of archival and digital resources for research. Knowledgeable researchers will be on hand to help get you started. You can also go online and join the SMRG’s discussion forum to interact with others who are conducting military history research. Read the their guide to researching individuals who served in the First World War here and their guidance on identifying Scottish regiments from photographs here

Contribute your own research

Add your research to on-going projects, like an online Roll of Honour. Search the many monuments and memorials across Scotland that have been photographed and transcribed by the SMRG’s Scottish War Memorials project via their online forum to see if your local memorial is on there and add information.

Explore the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War website. They have uploaded the basic service details of everyone who served - over eight million individuals. You can search an individual by name or service number and then submit information to be added to the online profiles. Lives of the First World War is an evolving resource and is improving continually as citizen researchers from across the UK upload additional information to the records.

You can also contribute to the cataloguing of the official war diaries held by The National Archives. Read through digitised diaries on the Operation War Diary website, tagging and classifying the information that you uncover.

Explore and conserve WWI Heritage

Historic Environment Scotland (formerly the two separate entities of Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland) have a WWI commemoration website and compiled a report on the Built Heritage of the First World War in Scotland. Visit WWI sites and structures throughout Scotland and upload information on your local sites to MyCanmore or record them with Scotland’s Urban Past. Learn more about the grants available for fixing or conserving local war memorials, funded by the Scottish Government and Historic Environment Scotland. The grants are administered by the War Memorials Trust​ and will be available throughout the centenary.

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