The People's War
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — "The history of the world is but the biography of heroes." - Thomas Carlyle
Typically, history is the story of heroes (of various degrees of merit), written by scholars (of various degrees of merit), but the BBC is currently exploring the Internet's unique capabilities to gather and preserve a different kind of record - a history of the people, written by the people, and posted for the people. WW2 People's War presents very personal perspectives of a global conflict.
Technically a component of the BBC's H2G2 (named after Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it is an online guide written by people who visit the site, similar to the Wikipedia, the "free encyclopedia" written by its users and not academics) People's War shares the approach of its mother site by ignoring learned texts in favor of the personal stories of online contributors. Once collected, stories are categorized by Date, Location and Type (Diaries, Personal Stories, Family Stories etc.) and integrated into a keyword-search database to accommodate visitors looking for specific subjects.
While at first glance, the People's War home page might seem entirely devoted to soliciting new stories and contributors (as well as help in actually running the website), 'read only' visitors are more than welcome, and can access the growing collection from links at the bottom of the page. Even at this early stage of the site's development, stories cover an impressive range of both military and civilian experiences - from a childhood reminiscence of watching a bombing raid, to the story of a regiment of native Canadians who swam a river and engaged Germans on the other side with nothing but bayonets while allied engineers were building a bridge.
One of the most personal narratives, "The Telegram," tells the story of a son who is the first to know that one of his brothers has been killed in action, as he struggles with how to break the news to the rest of his family. On a lighter note, "The Dummy Football Match," adds to such well-known wartime deceptions as inflatable tanks and factory roofs camouflaged to look like open fields, with the memory of a fake soccer match - broadcast from Scotland in order to make German bombers waste a trip across the North Sea.
(While content to date is, not surprisingly, Anglo-centric, the webmasters welcome entries about any subject on either side of the war, and already have such examples as a timeline of the brief career of the US Air Force's B-17 Flying Fortress, "Miss Lollipop.")
In addition to individual pages for every story contributed, each writer is given his or her own home page, which holds any personal information they wish to post, a 'Pigeon Hole' where other visitors can leave questions, and lists of other content they've added to the project. (Unfortunately, it seems that many writers aren't posting much, or any, background about themselves or the subjects of their stories, resulting in such mysteries as the age of the central character of "The Telegram.")
While many entries are only a few paragraphs in length, some potential authors still may not consider their writing skills up to the challenge creating stand-alone compositions. In such a case, Collaborative Articles presents Forums about specific subjects, which serve the dual role of helping to spark long dormant memories, as well as allowing visitors to briefly add their own recollections to what will be molded into a larger essay.
Research Desks let visitors to choose their own Forum topics (whether they're looking for information about a wartime friend or comparing WW2 propaganda to that of the Gulf and Iraq wars), while a 'people search' works on the same principle as a school's online alumni page. For offsite investigations, a collection of research guides offers advice on searching public records, interpreting WW2 artifacts, and general information on family history research.
The project itself is a new one, and while the variety of contributions is already impressive, the number is still relatively small, but return visits will be interesting if only to discover future entries in such currently empty categories as reminiscences from the Axis side, and Wartime Entertainments. (The home page has a "Latest Stories" link for frequent visitors.)
Background information about specific events (such as the Normandy Landings and the Fall of Hong Kong) is provided for those a bit sketchy about their history. The home page also provides links to more extensive BBC treatments of the war with an impressive collection of articles, timelines, and multimedia (ranging from animated campaign maps to a Flash game employing tactics used during the Battle of the Atlantic).
The only component that I found myself missing was photographs. It's more than likely that many of the site's authors have access to wartime photographs of themselves or the events they report, and photos, letters, and other documents could be easily scanned at home and uploaded to the site. Perhaps there's a logistical roadblock preventing such a feature, but in preserving the 'people's record,' such material would make an invaluable addition. (Not to mention the benefit for the site visitor, in fleshing out the written accounts of strangers.)
Will this collaborative history project be a success? Judging by the popularity of H2G2, the future looks very promising - and the site may have as much value for its precedent as its content. As yet another unique capability of the Web becomes more widely known (BBC may not be the first to use this technique, but they almost certainly have the highest profile), similar efforts devoted to any number of significant events could eventually become an indispensable part of the historical record.
WW2 People's War can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ww2/.