Experience World War I in 'real time'

Letters from a British soldier posted as a blog have gained a huge following.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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When Bill Lamin was 12 and discovered his grandfather's World War I letters in a desk drawer, he didn't care much about them. It wasn't until 2006, when he uncovered those same letters as he was clearing out the family home after his mother passed away, that he couldn't stop reading. Entranced by his grandfather's writings about the war 90 years earlier, Mr. Lamin, a retired math and Internet technology teacher from Praa Sands, England, wanted to share them with the world.

But publishing a book was costly, and he wasn't sure if his grandfather's letters merited a book. So he had another idea: He posted the letters online in hopes of attracting World War I history buffs.

The site (http://wwar1.blogspot.com) attracted few visitors at first, but gradually more people started reading "WWI: Experiences of an English Soldier," reliving the war through the eyes of Mr. Lamin's grandfather, Pvt. "Harry" William Henry Bonser Lamin.

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It's constructed as a blog, updated with postings of Harry's letters corresponding to the current date. Since Lamin's first blog post in February 2007, readers have been following Harry's letters about his travels – describing the sights he sees, the people he encounters, and his experiences in the trenches.

The letters were the only form of communication between Harry and his family back home in Britain. Now, some website visitors experience the same anxiety or longing for a letter as they await news from Harry to be posted.

Lamin's blog has attracted readers for various reasons – some are looking for a way to see what it might have been like for their relatives who served in the military during that war or they are simply interested in World War I history. "People have lost relatives – perhaps their grandfather or great-grandfather – and they don't know what he was going through," Lamin says. "These letters have helped. They can engage with their ancestor."

Readers have left thousands of comments about the blog, citing their appreciation and thoughts on Harry's letters. One or two have "reduced me to tears," Lamin says. "It's been absolutely amazing, just how they engaged with Harry."

Some readers ask "Where's Harry?" when they haven't seen a letter for a while; others offer prayers for Harry's safe return.

With the posting of each new letter, readers learn more about Harry's experiences. No one except Lamin knows if Harry survives the war.

"It's kind of like a big thriller mystery that keeps me really enticed," says Jon Teboe, an editor and producer from Los Angeles who was drawn into Harry's world after reading an article about the blog online. "I think [his blog] is extremely important because [of] the stuff he's writing about; nobody can tell you about firsthand what it's like when they are all gone."

Mr. Teboe, inspired by Lamin's site, intends to post a relative's World War II diary entries beginning in January. He inherited the 140-page diary of 1st Lt. William R. Perkins, a P-51 fighter plane pilot who was part of the 354th Fighter Group.

While Teboe never met Lt. Perkins, he says that when reading the diary, it "seems like you're there ... and you're transported in time." Reading the diary has also sparked Teboe's desire to film a documentary on the 354th Fighter Group and connect with some of the survivors who might have known Perkins.

Lamin's blog has inspired others besides Teboe. One blogger posts his grandfather's letters from France while he served in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during World War I. Another posts his great-grandfather's journal entries from his service in the AEF in Siberia, and one posts scans of his father's letters from World War II as a prisoner of war in Singapore.

In the future, Lamin hopes to publish a book of his grandfather's letters and create a World War I textbook for British schoolchildren. He's already read the letters to children in a primary school classroom. "I think most of the [World War I] books are dire," Lamin says. "Either they are very, very sensational or dry." So he sees his grandfather's letters as a gateway for education.

The blog has now become so well known that his grandfather will be featured on a postage stamp this November to commemorate the end of the war, and Lamin notes that a book deal is in the works.

"There comes a point when you start wondering about your family; where you came from and what sort of people your antecedents [were]," Lamin says. "I want the world to know about my grandfather." Blogs have transformed war-zone correspondence, says Jill Walker Rettberg, an associate professor at the University of Bergen in Norway and author of the book "Blogging."

Professor Rettberg has researched the increase of soldiers posting blog entries from Iraq and notes that this electronic medium has helped soldiers stay in touch with family and friends with a simple click of a mouse. "What's unusual or new," she says, "[is that] the world gets immediate access to this."

Rettberg also says there are benefits to posting family letters and information on the Web, such as Bill Lamin has done. "Because it's online, it's searchable," she notes. "So, say some other relative or someone who has a connection to this person's grandfather [or] maybe someone's grandfather who was serving in the same group, they may be able to find that, and it might be useful to them, too." When Rettberg wrote about her grandmother online, she received comments from family members she never knew she had. Blogs are "making it much easier for people to share what they've found about their own family," she says.

[Editor's note: The original version misstated which fighter group 1st Lt. William R. Perkins belonged to and what type of plane he flew.]

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