Operation War Diary: Be part of history
Welcome to our project blog. I’d like to get the ball rolling with a few words about why Imperial War Museums (IWM) brought The National Archives and Zooniverse together and then led this project through conception, design and development.
Of course IWM and The National Archives work closely together. The National Archives have digitised and are making available First World War unit war diaries through their First World War 100 portal and they were helping us plan our major digital project for the centenary – IWM’s Lives of the First World War . That project, due to launch in late Spring, aims to uncover the life stories of the 8million men and women who served Britain and the Commonwealth during the war. The unit war diaries can help to tell many of those life stories. A colleague told me one of those stories that she found in a battalion war diary. A story about the wonderfully named Reverend Mazzini Tron that she found in a battalion war diary.
Reverend Mazzini Tron
In early October, 1917, the 3/4th Battalion the ‘Queen’s’ Royal West Surrey Regiment had joined the Third battle of Ypres (often referred to as ‘Paschendale’). This was the first combat seen by the battalion, and as is often the case, those early experiences are vividly described in their Unit Diary. The diary for 2-7th October describes a number of incidents in great detail including how the Revd. Tron, chaplain to the 3/4 Queen’s, kept up the spirits of the men, made sure they received rations despite very difficult conditions and tended to the wounded and dead. At one point:
“A German Officer rushed at the Rev Tron and nearly tore his coat from off his back. The padre who is a bit of a boxer, repeatedly struck the German in the face until they broke apart. Unslinging his glasses the German thrust them into the hands of the astonished clergyman, and tendered his surrender.”
This is a memorable incident, but there is a wider point. Thrice decorated, Rev Tron was clearly a dynamic individual, yet we know little about his war service – why? Because his service records were destroyed by bombing during in the Second World War, along with around 70% of FWW service records. It is very, very likely he is mentioned elsewhere, but how can we find him in 1.5 million pages? Along with Rvd Tron, there are thought to be around half a million people named in the diaries, but how do we find those names?
That’s where Zooniverse come in. My job is to apply new technology to the history of the war, so I already knew about the innovative Zooniverse crowdsourcing platform and their successful citizen science projects . Chris Lintott, Zooniverse Supremo and presenter on BBC’s The Sky at Night, and his team were immediately enthusiastic and wanted to work with the National Archives and IWM, but they told us we needed to underpin the project with formalised academic rigour. From experience, they knew this would give it real purpose and broaden its appeal. I then approached Professor Richard Grayson of Goldsmiths, University of London. His book Belfast Boys pioneered using large quantities of digital and other sources to analyse the war experience of one area. Richard was supportive from our first conversation and he helped IWM to convene a 25 person Academic Advisory Group for centenary digital projects.
This is what we made
IWM had now brought together all the ingredients required to launch Operation War Diary:
- The National Archives extraordinary digitisation initiative
- IWM’s deep historical expertise
- Zooniverse’s innovative (and highly successful) citizen science platform
- IWM’s Academic Advisory Group for centenary digital projects
- IWM’s digital project leadership skills
Together, we have done something extraordinary. We have created operationwardiary.org – the most ambitious project of its kind to date. Now for the really important stage – we are seeking thousands of citizen historians to find all the references to Rev Tron and the other half a million named people. Together we can uncover the story of the Western front in new and extraordinary detail.
By working together, we can make history.
Luke Smith, Digital Lead, First World War Centenary Programme, Imperial War Museums