Now You Too Can Be a World War I Historian
Operation War Diary lets anyone tag and vet battle accounts
One hundred years after the beginning of World War I, the British National Archive has launched an ambitious project to sift through and classify its vast trove of records from that world-spanning conflict.
It’s asking everyday people to help. Operation War Diary is a collaboration between the Archive, the Imperial War Museum and crowdsourcing Website Zooniverse. The effort aims to mobilize an army of amateur historians.
The Great War was unprecedented in its brutality and violence—and also for the sheer volume of paperwork the combatants produced. The British and Commonwealth armies alone churned out no fewer than 1.5 million pages of war diaries.
Luke Smith from the Imperial War Museum first suggested the idea in 2012. “People have discussed crowdsourcing the diaries in a vague way for a number of years,” Smith explained. “I believe my proposal was the first specific one with defined purpose.”
At the same time as the idea for Op War Diary was taking shape, Zooniverse was relaunching. Founded in 2007 by Chris Lintott as Galaxy Zoo, the Website invited users to help classify stars and planets using data from the Hubble Space Telescope. It quickly attracted a million users.
Rebranded in 2012, the site branched out. Among other crowdsourcing tasks, users could help locate the birthplaces of planets or assist in identifying animals caught in camera traps in East Africa.
Lintott was intrigued by Smith’s idea and together they reached out to the National Archive in London. The archive holds most of the British army’s World War I records, all of which have been available to the public since the 1960s. Most interesting are the WO/95 forms that unit commanders or adjutants filled out as official war diaries.
The problem is, there are far too many documents for War Museum agents or other physical visitors to the Archive to have any realistic chance of doing useful curating. Even after the Archive digitized the Great War collection, the Museum still needed help.
Lintott and Smith’s Op War Diary connects the vast war archive to Zooniverse’s legions of armchair researchers. Sitting at their laptops, Zooniverse users can read a few random WO/95s after work or on the weekend.
They add a bit of metadata specifying what kind of information is in the old documents—names, dates and places. Those data tags make it much, much easier for authors, academics and lay readers to find the war diaries they actually want to read.
Op War Diary is Zooniverse’s first foray into historical research—but the response so far has been encouraging. “We’ve been hugely pleased,” Lintott said. “Hundreds of thousands of names have already been recorded, for example.”
Users’ strong interest actually presented a challenge for Zooniverse. The site had to accommodate more data than previous projects demanded. “The task is a lot richer than any of the text projects we’ve done before,” Lintott explained. “A single page can contain a lot of information, so we needed the interface to be as straightforward as possible.”
What had started as a simple data-tagging exercise expanded into something much grander. “The diaries are much more interesting than we thought they would be,” Lintott admitted.
The Op War Diary organizers added more types of tags. Besides specifying names, dates and locations, users can now also mark events—enemy bombardment or religious services, for example. For interesting data that don’t fall under the expanded options, users can simply enter their own custom text.
On top of that, the Zooniverse coders added on online forum for each diary page, so that users can chat with each other as they explore the document. What had been a solitary online activity became highly collaborative.
It’s clear from browsing some of the pages just how interesting the diaries can be from an academic and emotional standpoint.
One battalion diary describes how the troops suffered from continual trench collapses due to unceasing bombardment. The author’s tone is sad and understated. “Dugout collapsed, burying four boys. Germans heard cheering and firing into position. Bad show.”
The entries from major battles make for the hardest reading. One battalion officer listed the 13 officers and 123 other ranks—a tenth of the unit’s fighting strength—lost in the first 36 hours of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Other diaries are, frankly, funny. One jokes about a training exercise that turned farcical when the colonel leading it got stuck in a bog and “almost drowned.” Another speaks of an organized pleasure ride by horse-mounted officers turning into an impromptu fox hunt. There are entries on regimental sporting events like boxing, soccer and running.
We can find these anecdotes because Op War Diary’s amateur historians have already tagged them. But that doesn’t mean their work is done. To be truly useful for professional historians, the tagged war archive also needs to be vetted.
That’s because much of the metadata can be inaccurate. The war diaries’ handwriting is hard to read. Zooniverse users might make mistakes. Op War Diary attempts to filter out bad tags by comparing different users’ classifications of the same pages. The site highlights inconsistencies for further review.
Zooniverse plans to put fully vetted data into a separate database. “We know how the process works, but it will take a year,” Lintott noted.
For all its flaws, Operation War Diary has already won accolades. The Museums and the Web conference in Baltimore, Maryland, handed the initiate its “Best of the Web” award in the “Research/Collections Online” category.
Preparations are underway to take advantage of the emerging treasure trove of tagged, vetted data. The Academic Advisory Group, led by Prof. Richard Grayson of Goldsmiths, University of London, is exploring ways the harvested data could be put to use.
“The AAG will be looking at, for example, how far the data helps us understand the daily lives of soldiers from a range of different perspectives—knowing what the diaries contain, I am certain it will do,” Grayson said.
Building on Op War Diary, Smith said the Imperial War Museum is planning another online tool called Lives of the First World War—an interactive platform to tell and share the stories of those who served in one of history’s most awful conflicts.