‘Lest We Forget’ – Creating a First World War Community Archive

This post comes from Dr Matthew Kidd, who is currently working at the University of Oxford on ‘Their Finest Hour’, a Second World War digital archive project .

Between October 2018 and July 2019 I was Research Co-ordinator for ‘Lest We Forget’, a digital archive project led by the University of Oxford in collaboration with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Launched in October 2017 following the success of a popular crowdfunding campaign, ‘Lest We Forget’ aimed to collect and digitally archive First World War artefacts stored in people’s bedrooms, cupboards and attics. These artefacts are at risk of being lost as people die, move house or ‘declutter’, and our aim was to identify, record and safeguard them for future generations.

We did this by training volunteers to organise and run their own ‘Community Collection Days’ so that members of the public could bring their war-related stories, memories, photographs, diaries, letters and other mementos to be digitised  and uploaded to an online archive. Between October 2017 and July 2019, we trained 437 volunteers to organise 38 Community Collection Days in schools, community centres, libraries, churches and universities all over the United Kingdom. In total, volunteers recorded 886 stories and took 13,949 photographs of First World War artefacts, all of which have since been uploaded to the Lest We Forget online archive (http://lwf.it.ox.ac.uk/).

The contents of the archive were made freely accessible on 11 November 2018 to complement projects and events commemorating the centenary of the end of the war. The archive contains an eclectic range of military and non-military artefacts including medals, badges, shells, anti-war literature, trench art, letters, souvenir postcards, diaries, poems, photographs and drawings. We also digitised some highly unusual items: a set of German binoculars, a tank mask, photographs from Egypt, a wooden grave marker and a letter sent just minutes before the signing of the armistice. Cyril Green’s 12cm-long glove, which shrunk when it was exposed to nerve gas, was a personal favourite of mine.

Although the project has now ended, we are currently developing a follow-up, Second World War digital archive project. Thanks to a small grant from the University of Oxford, we have been able to organise a trial WW2 collection day at the National Army Museum on Saturday 14th December 2019. As well as collecting the stories and artefacts of the Second World War, we intend to use the event to identify opportunities and potential obstacles of leading a larger, fully-funded Second World War digital archive project.

As the stories of the Second World War are fast fading from living memory, we think it is vital that we work now to preserve the heritage of everyone affected by the war and to make their stories available for use by future generations. If you have any WW2-related stories or artefacts that you would like to share and preserve, then bring them along to the National Army Museum on 14 December. I hope to see you there!

Event details can be found here.

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