Much to my chagrin it seems that for once, Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart was right. When considering the First World War, we think of “the blood, the death, the endless poetry”. With the centenary upon us, public interest in this part of history seems to be at an all-time high. The sales of literature have reflected this, with personal histories of the conflict rocketing to the top of the military history bestsellers lists. True stories, memoirs, and personal accounts abound. The public craves human experiences.
One might be forgiven for thinking the same interests are played out in the online-historical-forums community. After all, who could fail to be captivated by the host of tragic tales from those who witnessed this conflict? Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Ernst Jünger, all have taken their place as the great record keepers of this unique war. Yet log on to Historum, or All Empires, or Axis History, and you find… pictures of tanks.
There are few human experiences to be found here. The focus is tactical, strategic, and mechanical. Technophiles swap weapons blueprints, ballistics charts, and the classified files of secret armaments. Strategists debate the finer points of assault troops and defence in depth. Armchair generals replay the crucial engagements with their own tactical twist, and with little patience for the established literature. Max Hastings? Populist rubbish. Anthony Beevor? He couldn’t tell a trench mortar from a howitzer.
Perhaps I’m doing these forums an injustice. After all, they all have the laudable characteristic of community education, something not immediately afforded to consumers of printed works. Threads are crammed with topical experts educating others on their own particular area. Questions are posed, arguments are discussed, and dubious propositions are deconstructed with vigour. As Cunningham’s Law states, “the best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer”.
But are these two groups of history consumers, the book-readers and the digital-enthusiasts, as rigidly separated as they seem? Is public interest in this conflict entirely tribal, divided between the emotional and the technical?
Voices from 1915 is my attempt to investigate exactly this question. Combining first-hand accounts with a live website with a comment feature, the website uses the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Loos (25th September – 14 October 1915) as a springboard for creating a forum where these two apparently distinct groups can mingle in comfort. Through this project, I plan to draw together these separate groups of history consumers and enhance the search for human experience with community discussion and education.
The task is a daunting one. Military buffs might tell me I have failed to establish Clausewitz’s first principle: having the probability of victory on your side. Anyone with experience in public engagement can tell you how difficult it is to get people to click on a URL, let alone explore the site behind it. Similarly, I cannot force users to confront an area of history outside of their preferred topic or format, and trying to demonstrate that they will willingly do so may prove to be impossible.
Nevertheless I will persevere, for the potential benefits are numerous. Any project that encourages separate groups of history consumers to engage with alternate topics and methods is a worthy cause. The data gathered via questionnaire will provide useful information on the history consumption habits of a wide range of members of the public. Furthermore, there is a tangible academic interest in bringing this underappreciated but important engagement back into the historical spotlight.
Only time will tell how successful this proposed integration will be. Now it falls to me to raise the colours and drum up the troops for this public engagement manoeuvre. All are welcome, so please visit Voices from 1915 to experience the project for yourself.
Jonathan Murphy graduated from the University of Sheffield with a BA in History, and is currently working towards an MA in Public Humanities. You can find Jon and his Voices from 1915 project here.
Image: British infantry from the 47th (1/2nd London) Division advancing into a gas cloud during the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915 [Wikicommons]