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Operation War Diary turns to the crowd to unlock the secrets of WW1

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On my recent trip to see the in-laws in the Czech Republic I indulged in the opportunity to read some non-business related stuff.  Amongst the pile was Birdsong by Sebastien Faulkes.  I’m sure most of you have read it, but it’s a harrowing tale of life during World War 1, with graphic depictions of the industrial scale brutality of events.

Part of the plot was told through the eyes of the protagonists grand-daughter, who was attempting to better understand the period from her 1970′s perspective.  Central to her attempts was a trawl through the diaries written by the protagonist.  With 2014 being the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of war, there is a renewed interest in the conflict.  Whilst the character in Birdsong had to undertake a solitary investigation however, a new project is tapping into the crowd.

The British National Archives, Imperial War Museum and Zooniverse have teamed up to build Operation War Diary.  The project aims to make previously inaccessible data available to experts and the public alike, in the hope that this exposure will provide fresh insights into the conflict.

“The National Archives’ digitized First World War unit diaries will allow us to hear the voices of those that sacrificed their lives and is even more poignant now [because] there are no living veterans who can speak directly about the events of the war,” Britain’s former Culture Secretary Maria Miller said in a statement. “This new online vehicle gives a very public voice to some of these soldiers, through which we will be able to hear their thoughts and feelings. Using Operation War Diary, we can follow in their physical shadow as they fought across the Western Front.”

Thus far, the site has recruited over 10,000 volunteers from around the world to tag names, locations and other key facts from the diaries available on the site.  Collectively, this has seen over 260,000 individuals named and 332,000 locations.  This would have taken an expert team around 2 years.

The crowd effort has thus far seen over 200 diaries verified using this data.  The diaries range from simple cover pages to narrative reports of the conflict, with each diary catalogued according to their theatre of operations, unit or date.  Volunteers can then select the diary they wish to work on and help to fill in the jigsaw.  Any data held within the project will then be made freely available.

Using the collected data, historians involved in the project are seeking to explore several key aspects of the Great War, including the role weather played and what everyday life was like for the common soldier.  The hope is that the diaries will shed light on what life was actually like for those involved.

“Little time was actually spent in combat, so what was life like on the Western Front when you were not fighting? How did the men live? How often did they eat hot food, have a bath or change their clothes? When they were resting how did they entertain themselves?”

The project marks an interesting shift in recent times towards applying the power of the crowd to more historical projects.  A few weeks ago I explored a new project launched between UCL and the British Museum to let the crowd help to catalogue and categorize historical items from the Stone Age period.

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