10:54am Tuesday 4th March 2008
By Reg Little
DOWN the centuries Oxford University has embarked on research projects that have made or rewritten history.
But it is difficult to think of too many as epic in scale or as noble in ambition as the nationwide search that is being launched this week.
For Oxford has been asked to create the world's largest Great War archive, an undertaking which it hopes will be worthy of the tens of millions who lived through or perished in the First World War.
A small team of eight has taken on the task of finding, gathering and preserving in digital form as much First World War memorabilia as they can, however delicate, rare or seemingly insignificant.
University researchers are appealing to the public to submit letters, diaries, poems, artefacts, photographs and items reflecting the true experience of the war that may be hidden away in their homes.
Dr Stuart Lee, the project director, said: "Both those who died and those who lived through the war left evidence of their experiences in the form of letters, drawings and countless other small mementoes.
"However insignificant, each of these items has a part to play in helping today's generation to understand what war meant to ordinary people: the soldiers, their families and the workers back in Britain who kept the country going."
The appeal for people to dig out material that may very well have been hidden away in cupboards, attics and old suitcases has gone out from his office in Banbury Road, appropriately only a few yards away from the war memorial.
"The likelihood is that some people perhaps may be unaware of the historic value of items. Some of the items may be in a fragile condition after 90 years, and are at risk of being lost forever."
Taped interviews are also being sought, or simply stories that have been passed down from generation to generation, reflecting personal experiences that are in danger of being lost.
A website was launched on Monday to allow members of the public to submit their digital photographs or transcripts of items they personally hold.
People now have three months to submit material to the Great War Archive.
Ultimately it will become part of the massive archive that will be made available free of charge on the web on November 11.
When it is launched on the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, it will be made available free of charge, and aimed particularly at schools, colleges and universities.
But Dr Lee, who is a member of the English Faculty and director of Oxford University Computing Services, thinks it will be widely used.
"When you work in this field, you are repeatedly struck by the continuing enthusiasm for, and interest in, the Great War," he said.
The Oxford team is conscious that that not everyone will be equipped to send in photographs and records digitally.
So, a series of one-day events will be held over the next 12 months, at which people can have their items scanned.
The first event will be held at the Oxford Central Library on Monday (10am-4pm), when staff and experts will be on hand with computers to assist people in submitting material.
Oxford University was chosen to assemble the archive because of its success with a similar undertaking focusing on First World War poetry.
Its roots are in a ten-year-old award-winning website that digitised the poetical manuscripts, letters, and war records of Wilfred Owen. The site can be found at oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit.
Oxford's Wilfred Owen archive attracted more than 1.2m hits and is now referenced by teachers and researchers worldwide.
The online archive offers access to primary source material that would be otherwise near impossible to obtain.
For the first time, it offered first-hand physical access to Owen's valuable manuscripts, too delicate to permit excessive handling.
Dr Lee said: "It is important for researchers from different parts of the world to see the original manuscripts with all their corrections. They may want to see the different versions side by side.
There are versions of Isaac Rosenberg's poem Dead Man's Dump in the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum and the Berg Collection in New York, for example, while Owen's manuscripts are dispersed between Oxford University's English Faculty, the British Museum and Texas.
The Owen archive was followed last autumn by the creation of the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, which offers manuscripts of poems, letters and diaries, along with images and film material from the Imperial War Museum.
Among the 2,000 digital images are drafts of poems by Robert Graves and Edward Thomas and the letters of Isaac Rosenberg. The site also contains interviews with broadcaster and journalist Ian Hislop, author Max Arthur, and podcasts of talks on First World War literature.
But creating the new archive creates a challenge on an altogether different scale, seeking as it does material relating to the war on land, sea and air, as well as the home front.
It has been made possible by a grant of £420,000 grant from the Government through its Joint Information Systems Committee, and is part of a wider initiative digitising important collections of the UK's heritage.
Among those supporting the project are the Imperial War Museum, the Bodleian Library, the British Library, the National Library of Wales, the National Archives, the University of Buffalo and New York's Berg Collection.
Fittingly, Dr Liz Masterman, who works at Oxford University, is one of the first to contribute to the archive.
She has submitted a selection of sketches by Percy Matthews, her husband's grandfather. They include beautifully drawn scenes and characters from military and civilian lives that Percy Matthews observed while he was stationed with the Middlesex Regiment in Salonika.
Dr Masterman said: "As a parent, I am keenly aware of the role of the Internet in making top-quality educational resources readily available to students and their teachers.
"My husband and his family have treasured Percy's drawings over the decades and are delighted that others will now be able to enjoy them too. I hope the Great War Archive will bring a wealth of other material to light, and so help future generations to appreciate the impact of the war on those who were caught up in it."
Mick Caldicott, from Acocks Green, Birmingham, also contacted the team recently with an autograph book that belonged to his great aunt, Beryl Ellis. She was a nurse at Moor Green Lane Hospital, Birmingham, during the First World War, and the autograph book contains poems and sketches by the soldiers she was nursing.
Kate Lindsay, who is acting as the project manager, said: "It's something of a call to arms - an opportunity for people to share with the wider public what they have. Folklore and mythology about the war that has been passed down in families can be just as important as physical objects. It represent an alternative voice of the First World War."
She points to the fact that the BBC's People's War Archive, which involved collecting memories and material about the Second World War, attracted about 85,000 contributions.
Ms Lindsay believes the project is timely.
"Paper was in very short supply and of poor quality on the Western Front," she said. "Diaries and letters were often written in pencil on acid-based paper, which was often soaked and mud splattered, making it more delicate. It can become brittle.
"There was a proliferation of memoirs from senior officers. So, it would be good to unearth material from the lower ranks and about women left at home. We have a film of a women's march in support of the war that took place just outside here in St Giles' in 1915."
And there is also the tantalising prospect of uncovering a great unknown poem or poet, whose work has been overlooked, if people respond to the call and start sifting through those faded letters, mud-splattered and composed in the midst of unimaginable horror.
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