UK mobilizes crowdsourcing army to analyze massive archive of World War I info

British historians are raising an online army of amateur history buffs to help tackle a massive archive of World War I photos, diaries and documents.

Operation War Diary a joint effort by the British National Archives, the Imperial War Museum and the crowdsourcing website Zooniverse — aims to make previously inaccessible data available to academics and amateur historians alike, creating a formidable “hive mind” concept to offer fresh perspectives on World War I.

“The National Archives’ digitized First World War unit diaries will allow us to hear the voices of those that sacrificed their lives and is even more poignant now [because] there are no living veterans who can speak directly about the events of the war,” Britain’s former Culture Secretary Maria Miller said in a statement. “This new online vehicle gives a very public voice to some of these soldiers, through which we will be able to hear their thoughts and feelings. Using Operation War Diary, we can follow in their physical shadow as they fought across the Western Front.”


More than 10,000 people worldwide have volunteered to tag names, locations and other key details in the diaries since the site’s launch eight weeks ago and officials say their collective work — more than 260,000 named individuals and 332,000-plus locations — is equivalent to two years of archival work.

More than 200 diaries have already been verified using the data to digitally map and analyze patterns and trends in the four-year, unit-driven global conflict. Ranging from cover pages to maps to narrative reports, the diaries are cataloged by theater of operations, unit and dates. Users can then select a diary “to work on” and provide missing pieces of the puzzle. Once completed, all of the data produced by Operation War Diary will be available for free.

“The war diaries contain a wealth of information of far greater interest than the army could ever have predicted,” the website reads. “They provide unrivaled insight into daily events on the front line, and are full of fascinating detail about the decisions that were made and the activities that resulted from them.”

Using the collected data, historians involved in the project are seeking to explore several key aspects of the Great War, including the role weather played and what everyday life was like for the common soldier.

“Little time was actually spent in combat, so what was life like on the Western Front when you were not fighting? How did the men live? How often did they eat hot food, have a bath or change their clothes? When they were resting how did they entertain themselves?”

The site also asks users to tag and describe weather conditions across the Western Front, going further than the “morass of mud for four long years” vision popularized over time.

“But the geology of the battlefield varied dramatically from the low-lying fields of Flanders, where the water table was barely below the surface, to the chalk downs of Picardy,” the site reads. “The war was fought in all seasons and the army had to function in all weather conditions.”

Digitized war records aren’t exactly a new thing -- more than 500,000 Civil War records have been available for years -- but this project can be particularly useful to amateur historians with a proclivity for all things British.

“It makes things to some degree a little easier in terms of getting access to particular sources,” said Richard DiNardo, professor of national security affairs at the Marine Corps University. “But there’s no substitute for actually going to an archive and getting into the records.”

DiNardo, who recently wrote a book about a little-known WWI campaign on the Eastern Front, said any archival effort begins with knowing the “broad outlines” of a story and then filling the remaining spaces with detail after detail. He said he expects sites like Operation War Diary to create countless amateur Anglocentric historians.

"It’s a nice, useful adjunct and it gives some of the more human stories to fit into the drama, that worm’s eye view that people like,” DiNardo told of the website. “Military history is, of all the subdisciplines of history, perhaps the most democratic because it’s written by a wide variety of sources. So, it sells so much better. Go to any Barnes & Noble and you’ll see bookshelf after bookshelf of books on war.