My work as a battlefield archaeologist has brought me as close to the realities of the Great War as it is possible to get, one hundred years after the fact. I have excavated trenches at various locations on the Western Front, as well as mass graves at Fromelles, in French Flanders. In 2008 I was also privileged to accompany Harry Patch, the last man alive to have fought on the Western Front, as he made his final visit to Flanders, to unveil a monument at the place where he went over the top at Passchendaele in 1917.
The loss of Harry Patch in 2009 marked a watershed – with veterans an extinct species we can no longer hear stories of personal experiences from those who went through them (it is said that Harry did not start to talk about his time in the war until he was 100). One thing that struck me while working on an increasing number of Great War archaeological projects was my personal dislocation. While the past few years have seen an upsurge in the interest in family history, which has been further accelerated by people wishing to know what their ancestors did during the war, I have never really given much thought to my family’s war stories. This disinterest might have something to do with constantly getting tied up with the lives of those with whom I have no familial connection – a lot of them were actually Australian (e.g. projects at Fromelles and Mont St Quentin).
It was only when I began to scroll through the University of Glasgow’s online Roll of Honour that I realised there was a community, close at hand and with which I did feel a real affinity. Just to put that in context, I have been associated with the university since 1983, when I started my undergraduate degree.
It wasn’t just the sense of connection though that piqued my interest, there was the scale of the university community’s sacrifice, with 4,500 staff, students and alumni serving, and 760 giving their lives. There was also the quality of commitment, with no less than three Victoria Crosses cited among the many awards listed, while the contribution of students and staff from all faculties reflected the university’s high standing particularly in medicine, engineering and theology.
I am not going go into detail about the project’s objectives and planned activities here, but what I will say is that the involvement of the present university community lies at the heart of it. One of the most basic aims of the project is to enhance the biographies of those individuals on the Roll, which in many cases are limited to basic information such as name, rank and unit. We now have a growing number of current students, including many from the Club 21 internship scheme, who have ‘adopted’ individuals on the Roll and found researching their biographies a very rewarding experience. We will soon be releasing a short film about their experiences so watch this space.
As previously mentioned, I am no stranger to the Great War, but I firmly believe that with this project I have found something that speaks to me on a more personal level than projects that have gone before. The Glasgow University Great War project is not just history – it is about our community, it is about you and me, it is about us.
In the next post, I will outline the first of our research themes – the Gilmorehill experience 1910-1930.