(Re)Discovering The Great War
By Simon Chaplin and Jeffrey S. Reznick
Commemorations of the centenary anniversary of World War I have begun in countries around the world. For the next four years, and probably a few beyond that, interest in the “war to end all wars” will reach a height not seen since the fiftieth anniversary of the conflict. This commemoration is different, however: it is the first major event focusing on the war in which digital content has become the focus of attention. Across the world, institutions and individuals have been encouraged to use digital technologies to connect and share the physical legacies of the war—from family letters and photographs, to library, archive and museum collections to battlefields, graveyards and monuments—on a scale that has never before been possible.
Today, the Wellcome Library and the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) join in this commemoration by releasing complementary digital collections of material that will substantially advance research, education, and learning about the 1914–1918 era in the contexts of medicine, health, and the human cost of the conflict.
The Wellcome Library has digitized over 130,000 pages of correspondence, personal and field diaries and reports, photographs and memoirs associated with the allied medical services during World War I. Drawn from material presented to the Royal Army Medical Corps Museum and Archive (now the Army Medical Services Museum Trust), the collection covers virtually every sphere of operations including the Balkan Front, the Dardanelles, East Africa, India, Italy, Malta, Mesopotamia and the Middle East, Russia, and South West Africa, as well as the Western and British Home fronts. It also includes material relating to prisoners of war, an often over-looked group in accounts of the conflict. Rich in data for military and family historians, the collection also sheds light on the lived experience of those involved in the war, both at a personal level (in the form of personal letters or diaries, such as the one kept by Private G. W. Jode, who served as a hospital orderly in Mesopotamia) and for units as a whole, as evidenced by the ‘newspaper’ produced by members of the East Lancashire Field Ambulance during the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Like the newspaper, many items reveal characteristic battle-field humor, as with the parody of an official ‘letter to wives’, among the papers of Captain Neil Cantlie RAMC, who served with the 6th Division at the Battle of Somme in 1916. The same file also contains more conventional records of the campaign, including Cantlie’s official ‘war diary,’ field maps and trench plans.
The collection is also rich in personal memoirs—most previously unpublished—produced by ex-service personnel in the years or decades after the war, forming an invaluable record of the recollections of a generation which has now passed away.
The NLM honors the centenary by augmenting its rich Digital Collections with hundreds of World War I-era publications, ranging from a variety of unit histories to published personal narratives; from accounts of relief work to reports on influenza; and from rehabilitation programs to textbooks of military medicine and nursing care. Noteworthy are dozens of hospital histories, including those involving the Detroit College of Medicine and Surgery Unit, The Mount Sinai Hospital, and Syracuse University, among many other institutions whose constituents served overseas and on the American home front. Works on wartime and postwar rehabilitation are also here, including publications by Edward Thomas Devine and Lilian Brandt of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Curtis Edmunds Lakeman of the American National Red Cross; and Douglas Crawford McMurtrie and John Culbert Faries of the Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men. Experiences of overseas volunteers are well represented—by accounts authored by ambulance workers Julien Hequembourg Bryan, Edward R. Coyle, and members of the American Field Service, and by nurses like Elizabeth Walker Black and Mary Dexter—as are those of home front volunteers like the Catholic Sisters of Philadelphia who assisted their community during the influenza pandemic of October, 1918. Also included in the collection is a silent film, entitled Plastic Reconstruction of Face, by an unknown filmmaker, which offers an intimate and unique account of carving and fitting facial molds.
Additional materials will be added to the NLM’s Digital Collections in the near future, including the NLM’s unique collection of U.S. Army hospital magazines—which have never before been available in digital format—and the seminal, 15-volume official history of the U.S. Army Medical Department, published from 1922 through 1929,whose publication history itself involved the predecessor of the NLM, the Library of Surgeon General’s Office—which, during the 1920s was renamed the Army Medical Library—and its contemporary counterpart, the Army Medical Museum.
Together, these collections of the Wellcome Library and the NLM complement each other—and other digital collections fast becoming available around the world—in the diversity of voices they reveal: individual and community, personal and official, institutional and organizational—all to help make apparent today and for the future the sheer human impact of the “Great War.”
Periodically this year, and through the centenary period, we’ll be featuring World War I items from these and other collections of our respective institutions. Some of these posts will appear jointly, cross-posted to Circulating Now and the Wellcome Library blog, to show connections and common themes, and to encourage virtual dialogue across collections of two of the world’s largest history of medicine collections.
We welcome you to explore our collections online and visit our institutions’ blogs regularly as we join with the world to mark the centenary of the Great War.