Oxford Is Digitizing UK’s World War I Memorabilia

The Lest We Forget Project is asking people to bring in letters, photos and objects from the Great War to be recorded for a free online database

WWI Troops
National Archives

Despite a slew of remembrances and documentaries to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I, the war and its importance are slipping from consciousness. But according to the BBC, Oxford University hopes to keep the conflict that reshaped the globe and defined the 20th century from slipping further into the mists of history. The University has launched a crowdfunding project called Lest We Forget that will digitize World War I-related materials across the United Kingdom.

According to a video press release, the project plans to set up digitization days in locations across the country. People with items from the war, including letters, photographs, uniforms, weapons and even family stories can come in and have their materials digitally photographed. Then, on November 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of the war, the collection will go online as an archive free to the public.

Jaymi McCann at The Express reports that this isn’t the first time project leader Stuart Lee has digitized WWI materials. In 2008, he ran a pilot program in the U.K. that created a database of 6,500 pieces of WWI memorabilia. The team then moved on to mainland Europe, where a project called Europeana has now documented 702,718 items from across Europe.

Those projects have led to some incredible finds, including a starched collar that saved a man from a flying shard of glass during an air raid, and a matchbox that contained a farewell message written by a soldier to his family that miraculously made it to them just days before he died. In Munich the team even found a postcard sent from 27-year-old soldier named Adolf Hitler that referenced a painful dental procedure.

“These items tell the real story of the war. They tell the story from the perspective of the families who were affected by it and the people who fought in it. They have been passed down through the generations because people felt they were important enough to keep,” Lee tells McCann. “Every day, items of historical importance are being lost. People from the older generation pass away and their houses are cleared; their attics are emptied. Old photos or bits of paper or documents that look unimportant but in fact offer a huge insight into life back then, are being thrown in the bin.”

But preserving all that material isn’t cheap. The project’s crowdfunding seeks to raise about $100,000 for the project in order to train about 70 local volunteers as “digital champions” to digitize the material. So far they’ve raised about $7,700.

While the United States doesn’t have a similar national effort to preserve the history of the war, the Tennessee State Library and Archives is engaged in a similar effort, and is digitizing letters, photos, maps and other documents of the 130,000 men from that state that served in WWI in a project called “Over Here, Over There: Tennesseans in the First World War.” On April 6, the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into the war, the National Archives unveiled a huge digitization project that put more than 110,000 photographs from the war as well as almost 300 reels of film online.