Luke Smith, Digital Lead for IWM’s First World War Centenary Programme, shares how Lives of the First World War came into being, and who he is remembering.
Lives of the First World War, the permanent digital memorial, is part of the story of Imperial War Museums. It is how we are fulfilling a central part of our original purpose, using 21st century means.
I’d like to tell you a personal story about how I was inspired to make this happen, and why I think it’s important. That story is about Private WD Fishlock of the Wiltshire Regiment, who died on 25 August 1917, aged 25. Before I introduce him, it’s worth knowing what was going through my mind in the spring of 2011…
‘Making big things happen’
I joined IWM at the start of 2011, with a simple, bold and somewhat terrifying brief – ‘make big things happen, outside the museum.’ Primarily, these things were to happen online and on mobile devices, but also by working with broadcasters and through live events.
People now want to know about people then. They want to know who they were.
It quickly became clear that three years wasn’t very long to achieve this, so I worked rapidly with my new colleagues at IWM to come up with ideas and plans. A great many people were involved in that, many outside the museum.
But one person in particular was there with me throughout the journey – Mel Donnelly, family historian, First World War enthusiast, former RAF air traffic controller and IWM Project Manager for Lives of the First World War. That was an exciting time for me – learning about the museum’s heritage, its expertise and its vast collections.
During that time I also learned a lot from Nigel Steel, Principal Historian for the First World War Centenary. He said this to me: “People now want to know about people then. They want to know who they were.” Those words lodged in my mind.
The need for a large-scale memorial
We came up with a dizzying array of ambitious plans. Remarkably, we have made many of them happen, and they ranged from simple to sophisticated in their scope. Whilst a wide range of projects is desirable and exciting, it was clear that we needed a big idea that would make a significant contribution to the First World War Centenary and its legacy.
That need preoccupied me greatly – of all our ideas, what would grab the public imagination? What would be unique, long-lasting, and have a very wide reach? What would last long beyond the Centenary? With all that in my mind, I headed off to visit old friends in Wooton Rivers, a pretty little village near Marlborough, Wiltshire.
Discovering Private WD Fishlock
Whilst going for a walk, I took a detour in the grounds of St. Andrew’s Church. The church is tucked away down a little path off the main street and it’s a typical English scene. A simple, small church surrounded by graves of local families all set in grass and shaded by mature trees.
Due to my preoccupations, I was drawn towards the only Commonwealth War Graves Commission gravestone on the grounds. I’m not sure I’d ever looked at one closely before – I’m a technologist, not a First World War historian. Of course, I have seen a great many of them since.
The gravestone was inscribed:
‘8999 PRIVATE W. D. FISHLOCK
24TH AUGUST 1917
Who was this man, with his memorable and unusual name? That’s what I wanted to know. What did he do before the war? Did his brothers also serve? Was he from this place? Did his descendants still live nearby? Did he leave a wife or children?
Nigel’s words came back to me, and I realised he was right. That was my ‘eureka moment,’ the moment I realised the idea of ‘who they were’ could reach beyond our own ancestors and seize our collective imagination.
Revealing 8 million stories
Nearby, a man was tending one of the graves and we started to chat. He knew nothing about Private WD Fishlock, but he told me there were still Fishlocks living around Wooton Rivers.
I realised I could answer all my questions, not just for Private Fishlock, but for all 8 million who made a contribution
Would they know anything about this man? What about other descendants, doubtless spread far and wide during the 20th century?
I realised that I could answer all my questions, not just for Private Fishlock, and not only for those who died in the war, but for all 8 million who made a contribution. Of course, I couldn’t actually do it myself. But I could design something to enable everybody to work together to piece together those Life Stories. I could work with others (a large number of others) to refine that design and then to build that thing. That thing is, of course, Lives of the First World War.
The beginning of a journey
We’ve been working on this for three years. Our software development team at DC Thomson Family History, based in Dundee and London, started programming the system a year ago.
On 12 May 2014 we opened our doors to the public, but this was just the beginning. Dan Snow, historian and broadcaster put it very clearly when he said “IWM has created Lives of the First World War and is now handing it over to us, the public. We need to make it happen by uploading information about our First World War ancestors, piecing together their stories, remembering them and saving this knowledge for future generations. We urge everyone to get involved.”