12 September 2014 Blogs

New WWI Trench Journals Digital Gallery Reveals Real History

Readers of the Trench Journals can learn more about these extraordinary publications, how and why the combatants of all nations created them and, most importantly, browse through the pages and images themselves, to appreciate the long-forgotten voices of the servicemen and women of the First World War.

By John Pegum, Senior Product Manager

During the First World War, when the trench lines had become established, the troops of all nations, the majority of whom were well-educated literate civilians until the war broke out, felt the pressing need for reading material to pass the time and boost morale. Civilian newspapers could reach the front many weeks late, but the troops wanted magazines, so they created their own. They were intensely personal to the unit – written and illustrated by the troops themselves, and the magazines documented their experiences for both their comrades and for posterity. Thousands of magazines were created, containing poetry, stories, anecdotes, jokes, cartoons, illustrations, memoirs and accounts, which gave voice to the members of the unit.

My own interest in the trench journals and unit magazines sprang initially from finding examples, somewhat accidentally, in Cambridge University Library’s archives while working on my Ph.D. I was exploring the connections between the geographical construct of the trench world and the identity construct of the British soldier.  I soon found these magazines, which I had not read about in any other sources, to be incredibly valuable as primary sources. As the troops, from of all types of units, considered their place in the conflict, they wrote about it and read about it in the pages of their unit’s magazines. This, I realized, was history written as it was being lived, and I felt that, as valuable as these sources were for my research, there were multitudes of researchers and students in a range of disciplines who would find them just as revealing and insightful. They are the missing piece of primary sources from the First World War; the soldier writing for his comrades, with no sense of a civilian readership in mind.

After completing my Ph.D. and teaching in a number of Cambridge colleges, I joined ProQuest and worked on the Literature databases while, with the assistance of my new colleagues, investigating the potential for a new database to feature trench journals. I soon realized how vast the world of trench journalism was. The most remarkable and expansive collections of these magazines were dispersed in various libraries and museums around the world. After much research, many visits to archives and interviews with professors and librarians, not to mention months of painstaking digitization, indexing, coding and testing, ProQuest launched Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War in late 2013.

This important archival database will shortly contain over 30,000 digitized trench journals and unit magazines in full color with searchable text and detailed indexing. They are sourced from the world’s preeminent collections at the Imperial War Museum, the British Library, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, and the Library of Congress. The collection contains magazines from the fighting troops of all nationalities, including Britain, the Commonwealth, the U.S., France, Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary and Italy, as well as magazines produced by Prisoner of War camps, munitions factory workers, units training at home and abroad, and civilian charities associated with the war effort.

Being able to search and browse these magazines digitally on ProQuest is a world away from my graduate student days. Then, I ordered items from the rare books collection, waited hours for them to arrive, leafed through the fragile pages, and sent them back to the archives, hoping I had not missed a highly relevant reference. Now, thanks to the digitization efforts of ProQuest and the expert indexing we have created with our library and museum partners, the magazines are preserved and protected while also being far more widely accessible and searchable by both experts and novices alike. These texts have lain hidden for decades in archives, but now they can be appreciated like never before. In these centenary years, with no living survivors still with us, the trench journals provide an unparalleled opportunity to eavesdrop on the ordinary men and women who were experiencing that war first hand and writing about it in the pages of these fascinating magazines. There they wrote the real history of the People’s War.

To celebrate the launch of Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War, ProQuest has created a publicly available microsite, featuring dozens of page images from the database, in specially curated digital galleries. With the accompanying contextual material, readers can learn more about these extraordinary publications, how and why the combatants of all nations created them and, most importantly, browse through the pages and images themselves, to appreciate the long-forgotten voices of the servicemen and women of the First World War.