Digitization, commemoration, and sustainability: some thoughts about Rhyfel Byd 1914-1918 a’r profiad Cymreig / Welsh experience of World War One 1914-1918

The 100th anniversary of the First World War has been in the news lately, partly prompted by David Cameron’s announcement about plans for the commemoration of the anniversary of the start of the War in 2014. Unsurprisingly, the idea of using the anniversary to develop any kind of ‘celebration’, or force upon the occasion a sense of ‘national unity’, has met with a considerable backlash.  The events of this first “world” war were seen as early as December 1914, by Lytton Strachey, as “remorseless, terrible, gruesome”. Images evoked by the conflict, both seen at the time and recreated by our collective memory, have continued to evoke feelings of horror at the waste of life, at the consequences for the survivors, and for those on the ‘home front’ who dealt with privation and the loss of loved ones. The War was a deeply divisive event, and its aftermath has been seen as the effective beginning of the modern age. It’s appropriate that it’s been commemorated by somber reflection.

However, the centenary of the start of the War means that reflection will be reinforced by attention. There will be films, documentaries, and news coverage. Public figures will express views, and there will be an increased focus on what we know about the War – and, more significantly, what we don’t know. For an event that has been editorialized, remembered, and researched since the declaration of hostilities in 1914 (if not before), there are still significant gaps in our knowledge, and one of these is the Welsh experience of the War. It is difficult to envisage many aspects of Welsh society in the years immediately before and during the War. The changes wrought by the War on Welsh society and culture were are often claimed to have been dramatic and far-reaching and a major task for the commemorations of the War will be to evaluate and explain such changes.

For our project partners, developing the digitization project Rhyfel Byd 1914-1918 a’r profiad Cymreig / Welsh experience of World War One 1914-1918 was a response to the need for greater awareness, understanding, and reappraisal of the impact of the War on Welsh society, politics, culture, and language. Gwyn Alf Williams, in When Was Wales, described the War as “an unhinging shock of the first order”. Kenneth O Morgan wrote in Wales 1880-1980 “it is clear that the war marked an immense break with the past, in social and ultimately in political terms” The primary sources for this perspective are well preserved and available for consultation in the libraries, archives, and special collections of Wales. However, these source materials , such as  newspapers, letters, diaries, and official records including those of the comfort funds and the Welsh Army Corps, are presently fragmented, and frequently inaccessible, yet they collectively form a unique resource of vital interest to researchers, students, and the public, in Wales and beyond. Digitising this material will make it available to a far wider audience than can currently access these fragile and unique materials in special collections and archives, and by gathering them together they will form a rich resource which will be valuable for any scholar attempting to piece together a national picture.  We hope that the digital archive we are creating will provide an invaluable resource for teaching, research, and public engagement.

Making this material more widely accessible will enable historians to address many new research challenges, and to investigate more fully ongoing debates. For example, what is the social and political context for Kenneth Morgan’s claim that that Welsh were quickest of all to volunteer (see Rebirth of a Nation, p. 160)? How did the recruitment rate compare across areas in Wales, and was there an imbalance between Welsh and English speaking areas? The impact of the War on Welsh society was enormous, yet the common perceptions of the Welsh experience of the War (for example of a ‘blind patriotism’ leading the young men to volunteer) are not necessarily backed up by the primary sources. A reappraisal of these is required to analyse the different currents of the debate about the justification for the War, and how difficult issues were wrestled with by those who had conflicting feelings about going to war. Furthermore, the nature of this debate evolved with time, and took on different shades in different parts of Wales.

In order to address these, and related, research challenges, the digitization of a huge range of material from Special Collections will form an essential digital ‘corpus’ for research and teaching of WW1, a true mass digital archive of these sources that will enable their broadest use, re-use and interpretation across the disciplines.  The digital resource, like an analogue archive, will not be prescriptive, or foreground specific themes; instead, it will enable scholars, students and other users to explore the whole range of themes related to WW1 in Wales.

Prior digital humanities research has shown that students will find, and prefer to use, the available digital resources on a specific topic (for an example of this argument, see the essay by Tim Hitchcock, of the University of Hertfordshire, in his chapter in the collection of essays I edited with Mark Greengrass, “Virtual Representation of the Past”). We hope that our content will, therefore, be integrated into teaching, and have a significant impact on the undergraduate curriculum. In developing the project, we have worked with an academic advisory group to investigate how our resource can become embedded in university teaching and research, and also in the school curriculum in Wales. In particular, this project will support the teaching of history through the medium of Welsh. We hope this will foster a debate about the use and integration of digital resources in teaching and research generally. A digital corpus of material cannot, itself, impact on the history curriculum – it is the methods of evaluation, analysis and report that will determine the shape of the curriculum.  What this material can do is to contribute to enriching the context, extend the points of reference and introduce additional evidence into the process. The First World War, like the whole of the twentieth century, has featured far more prominently in the school curriculum than, say, medieval or eighteenth century history.  What the material created through this project may do is shift the emphasis away from politics and warfare towards social and economic change

The digital collection will be a truly ‘national’ digital resource to support and analysis and interpretation of the impact of ‘the Great War’ in a small country with a distinct cultural and linguistic identity that was nonetheless overshadowed by the English language and culture ‘official narrative’ of the War. Bringing these source materials out of the dark will develop a body of material to finally support a paradigm for interpretation that will be relevant to many countries with dual language and traditions, which saw transformative changes post WW1. Themes of interest to historians at present include evidence of the effect of the fighting on individuals; social changes (for example, women in paid employment); recruitment and British/Welsh patriotism; the nature of opposition to the war; the emergence of Nationalism, and commemoration and remembrance. Themes of interest to historical sociologists and language planners include the sharp decline in national self-confidence and speakers of Welsh following WW1. The artistic legacy of the War is also a topic of interest across the disciplines. We anticipate broadest use of the digital collection by scholars interested in the Great War and Celtic studies internationally, including the International Research Center of the ‘Historial de la Grande Guerre’, with a mission to provide an all-encompassing history of WW1, including its impact on culture and society throughout Europe and the rest of the world. A project focussing on Wales would provide a comparative history from a different perspective to the larger combatant nations.

Thinking about use – and re-use – of the resource is absolutely crucial to the sustainability of the digital archive that we are building. We have anticipated who will use the resource – academics and their students, teachers and pupils, the media and the public. We have anticipated some of the research questions, and lines of enquiry that the resource will open up. However, for this resource to be sustainable over the long term it will need to become truly embedded in teaching and research. The project team have committed to working with our academic advisors, the Welsh Government, and the museums, libraries and archives community in Wales in order to ensure the embedding of the digital archive in teaching, research and outreach and awareness raising activities, throughout the commemoration period of 2014-18, and beyond.  We will continue to make the resource available as long as it is needed, and used. Developing and sustaining this valuable resource for scholarship will be a significant contribution to Welsh commemoration of the First World War: and, we hope, a fitting one.


One thought on “Digitization, commemoration, and sustainability: some thoughts about Rhyfel Byd 1914-1918 a’r profiad Cymreig / Welsh experience of World War One 1914-1918

  1. Dear,

    I still have a recorded voice story of my late grand father Leopold De Clerck, WW1 veteran, who stated he went to college in Barmouth with other Belgians (former ghent college), father jacobs was the head of that college, and once graduated (18y of age) they went to London for military service (crystal palace) for engaging in the army, where they were quickly sent to Le Havre in France and to camp d’auvours…