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Diaries in World War I: Digitized for us all

The National Archives has just begun the process of making public the diaries of World War I soldiers.  About 20% of the more than 1.5 million pages are now available for the world to read.  All military units had to keep a daily log about what happened that day.  This information is now available to all of us, as the New York Times reports.  You can explore more about it here.

Other diaries are coming to light, such as Cyril Helm’s.  His grandson, a journalist for The Observer, beautifully commemorates  his grandfather’s recording of history.  Cyril, a medical officer, writes in 1914, “Many fell in our frontline trenches, causing awful casualties. Men were buried alive whilst others were just dug out in time and brought to, unable to stand, with their backs half broken. My cellar was soon packed, but I could not put any wounded upstairs as any minute I expected the place to be blown up.”

Wounded soldier at Ypres.

Wounded soldier at Ypres.

Diaries are a guide, illuminating darkened interior pasts.

Diaries from the home front are likewise crucial for understanding how people at the time understood war.  You cannot understand World War II without understanding the “Great War” (World War I).  Joan’s diaries ponder that prior war just as World War II is heating up.

While she is at summer camp, World War II begins.

Friday, September 1, 1939[1]

I have been reading about the [World War I] dead and am thinking how awful it must be for a mother—or a father—to know their grown son dead. After bearing and bringing through childhood to the prime of his life a son—to find that all this is futile, that all this is ended—all vain. That he died before he began to be himself. To lose a child must be in a deep sense far worse than to lose a husband. It must make one lose the sense of continuity. . . . A husband dead means that you are, in a way, dead—but to lose a child means you lose immortality—that you shall not go on. . . .

[1] Ironically, Joan wrote this entry before she knew World War II had begun on this day.

Joan at summer camp on September 1, 1939. You can see what wrote exclamation marks after the date.

Joan at summer camp on September 1, 1939. You can see Joan wrote exclamation marks after the date.

Whether in a trench or safe at home, diary expose the thawing of innocence and hope.

In a gigantic crowd sourcing effort, the National Archives are seeking volunteers to tag data.  You can participate here.  Help make history.

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