As Armistice Day approaches, I thought I would write a post about my own experience of digital history and why I feel that digitisation projects are so important.
It is 100 years since the start of World War 1, there are no longer any living combatants. As the years pass, there it is increasingly likely that we become distanced from the events and the people involved.
Digitised collections from national archives provide us with the opportunity to discover more about those involved in WW1 and to view them as more than just a series of names.
The Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are currently undertaking a project to digitise the service records of about 640,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). The archives have already digitised about 620,000 attestation forms and 13,500 service records.
The LAC site outlines the digitisation process:
Once digitized, images will be associated to metadata (the keywords that allow users to search through an electronic databank, such as the member’s given name, last name or regimental number). The images will be compressed to a lower resolution so that searches on the Web can be performed faster, and uploaded to the CEF databank. Batches of electronic files will be made available as they are ready, with the first set expected to be added to the Soldiers of the First World War section in 2014. After digitization, the paper files will be re-boxed according to new standards designed to ensure their long-term conservation, and stored in LAC’s state-of-the-art preservation facilities in Gatineau. Thereafter, there will be limited access to the original documents.Library and Archives Canada
The purpose of the project is to allow free, public access to the records – something that currently costs C$20 per order – and to preserve the fragile originals.
The UK National Archives have digitised about 5% of their records, some in collaboration with commercial partners.
Two WW1 Soldiers
Reginald G Eldridge (Great Uncle Rex)
Rex was living in Canada at the outbreak of WW1. He joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in September 1914, attesting in Qubec before travelling to the UK.
Rex was initially based on Salisbury Plain, for training and while the Canadian military leaders organised the troops. While he was based there, my grandmother (who lived in the UK) wrote to his colonel asking whether Rex could have leave for Christmas.
Unfortunately, the request was not approved.
Rex, alongside thousands of Canadian troops, was sent to France in early 1915. He was gassed in battle, but fortunately survived, although this affected his health for the rest of his life.
William H Fegan (Grandpa)
My grandfather, like many veterans, spoke very little about his military service. Documents from the UK National Archives have revealed a lot of information, which has helped create a more complete picture.
Grandpa joined 16th (Res.) Battalion, London Regiment, Queen’s Westminster Rifles on 8th January 1917, he was 17 years and 11 months old. He spent about 2 months training before returning home to await call up.
On 1st February 1918, aged 19, he travelled from Southampton to Le Havre and was assigned to the Corps Reinforcement Camp. On 20th February 1918 he was sent to the Western Front.
On 28th March 1918 he went over the top at Arras. In no man’s land he was blown up by a shell. On the casualty form, squeezed in above another line of writing are the words “wounded in action” and the date 29th March 1918.
When he was 88, Grandpa told my uncle:
His injuries included a large hole in his side, most of his shoulder blade was shot away, as was his right elbow.
After spending almost a year in hospital, on 18th January 1919 he was judged, under paragraph 392 (XVI) King’s Regulations, “No longer physically fit for War Service”. His entire military career had lasted 2 years 11 months, with just 69 days in active service.
Digitised collections allow anyone to access documents which, at one time, were mostly the preserve of academics and the curation staff. Being able to view these documents helps to bring historical events closer, making their participants and their lives come alive.