You have decided you want to find out what was happening during the First World War but don’t know how to start. Below are some ideas on the sorts of questions that you might like to think about and how you might go about answering them. We have also included some tips on keeping track of your research which will save you time and possible headaches further down the road.
All of the thoughts which follow come from our own experiences of doing research. Sometimes it can be really exciting as you find just the source or piece of information you need, or perhaps you have that casual conversation with a fellow researcher which sends you after a previously unknown gem. However we have all had those days when nothing goes right – the minute books haven’t survived, the document is illegible, the newspapers are missing for the month you need. This is all par for the course, but stick with it as often those frustrating days can lead to more imaginative ways of accessing the story of those who went before us.
We hope that what follows will help you to research your story, be it from a personal or wider community interest. Many of us start from a place of researching the story of a local village, town or family, but remember that community is not just confined by place; there are communities of belief or shared interests which cross geographical boundaries and offer an alternative view of how the First World War was experienced by groups of people (see our basketry project at NEEDS WEB ADDRESS for an example of a particular community of interest)
What do you want to research?
All research starts with a question. At the simplest level this is ‘what happened?’ but of course that is far from as simple as it sounds. Most people who start research worry they won’t be able to find anything, but in fact the more common problem is having more material than you know what to do with. Narrowing down your question at the start can help as, although you don’t yet know the answer, you do at least know what you are looking for. Think of it like a detective story –
- I want to find out what people ate during the war
- I want to know what sorts of jobs women in my part of the world did
- I want to discover the story of my local hospital
- I want to find out what people did for fun during the war
- I want to know how local businesses coped with the problems the war brought
- I want to see how much the war affected the lives of children
What sorts of information are out there?
Once you have an idea of your question you will be able to narrow down the sorts of material that will help you find answers. If you take a look at the table below you will see a wide range of sources of information. No one source can serve to answer all questions so you may have to look in a number of places to get a full picture.
How can I see these sources?
We are very lucky as many of the most popular sources of information for the early 20th century are now online, although often they require a subscription.
Subscription services such as Ancestry ( www.ancestry.co.uk) and Find My Past (www.findmypast.co.uk) are well-known as offering the opportunity to search the census from 1841-1911. However, they also carry details of many parish records, school log books, military records and others, although coverage of these sources is not comprehensive. This is a fantastic resource and fortunately you can also access these services free of charge at most libraries. There may be restrictions around the amount of time you are allowed in one session, but it is well worth talking to your local librarian about just what is on offer.
Another subscription service, The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk), offers the chance to search newspapers online. There are gaps, both geographically and in years available, but new titles are being added all the time as are years covered. Again, this is a service that many library services offer as part of their membership so explore locally to see what is available.
Libraries and County Archive/Record Offices carry a huge range of local material and have the great advantage of giving you a chance to talk to knowledgeable members of staff. They will have an awareness of other projects in your area and a real sense of the sorts of material you can use. They also usually have great collections of photographs. Every Archive will have a catalogue which you may be able to search online before making a visit, but as a rough guide the sorts of material that you will be able to see are
- Trade Directories
These are local Gazeteers of information usually organised by town or village. You will find details of local councils, schools, churches and chapels, plus who the major landowners are. Even more useful are lists of local residents, usually divided into ‘Private Residents’ (the wealthier members of the community, those living in the bigger houses, etc.) and ‘Commercial Residents’. The latter is very interesting as it can give you a sense of the commercial profile of a location – are there lots of small traders or craftsmen, is it a mixed economic community or is everybody dependent on just one trade? Are there many businesses run by women, is there much in the way of entertainment on offer? All sorts of questions and ways of building a picture of the local community. There are some problems with the Trade Directories as they were a subscription service and not always entirely up to date so you may get gaps where traders didn’t think it worth their while to be included, or where shops closed down/changed hands. However, even with these problems, the Trade Directories do offer a great way into finding out who did what and where.
As well as being able to access the British Newspaper Archive, libraries and archives will also have copies of local newspapers from the period, either as microfilm, or, if you are very lucky, in bound volumes. Newspapers are a fantastic source of information – too much to list in detail here, but just as a sample the sorts of things you can find are
- Advertisements for cinema, theatre, concerts, and other events – what sorts of things are on offer and does the war intrude?
- Letters from local people raising local and national issues – particular areas of concern are food shortages and lighting restrictions
- Biographies of the men who are signing up or have sadly been killed
- Many, many reports of meetings held to discuss huge range of issues around food, local improvements, billeted troops, public health etc.
- Accounts of cases before the magistrates and judges court – the Defence of the Realm Act brought in many restrictions and regulations which caught people out and brought them before the courts. One example is lighting restrictions – how did the magistrates treat private householders or traders who fell foul of the blackout?
- Advertisements from local tradesmen
- Reports from the Military Tribunal and applications for exemption from conscription – a great way to build a picture of the economic profile of the community and who is struggling/doing well
- Calls for charitable donations
What all these pieces can do is help to build a sense of the way in which life was both changed by the war but also carried on in many ways as before. Where are the points of tension within the community and where are there signs of people coming together? Is there evidence of class conflict – the area of food shortages was a particular flashpoint in some communities, but not all so what happened where you are?
- Minute Books
The minute books of many Council committees still survive and give a fantastic insight into how the members responded and adapted to the changing nature of the war. Sub-committees sprung up as new issues arose. Who is joining these committees? Is it the usual suspects, the men who ran things before the war, or are more women and representatives from affected groups being invited to join to bring their own expertise to the decision making process.
- Family, Business, Estate, Church and Chapel Records
The availability of these will very much depend on each Record Office or library, but where they exist they can give a detailed view of how people responded to the war both personally and professionally.
These are just a few of the sources that you can use to construct your picture of what happened during the war. There are also other places to think about approaching. Your local library or record office may be able to suggest more in your area.
- The British Library
- Local and national museums
- Local churches, chapels, schools, businesses who may still hold their own archives
- National Union or Trade Organisations.
What to do if you meet a dead end
Sometimes you will hit a brick wall and no sources seem to be available. Don’t give up. Talk to other researchers, ask your archivist or librarian, put out an appeal on twitter, or contact us at email@example.com. Often people collectively contain an answer so don’t assume there is only one way to find out what you want to know. Having said that, sometimes we just can’t get to the bottom of things, but time passes, new sources become available and suddenly there is the answer to that niggling question. Be patient, research another aspect of the story and hope for the best.
How to keep track of your research
It is really important to know where your information has come from. You may think you will remember but as you accumulate more and more stories it becomes hard to keep track of just where you found what. Think of those who come after you. It is very frustrating to read a really interesting story which fits with your research but with no idea how to follow up as there is no mention of the source. Always make it a rule that you note where the information has come from:
- the title of the source, its catalogue number and the page number or date of the meeting, letter etc., where appropriate
- the title of the newspaper, the date, page number and title of the newspaper article
- the title of the book, the author, date and page number where you found the information
All of this will save you time further down the line and spare you from the accusation of plagiarism.
If you interview individuals make sure that you get their informed written consent to use any information or material that they share.
Permissions for images
One of the concerns of those new to research is around copyright on images. There are things to bear in mind if you want to use images in your research but the most important is to be honest with the archive or institution where you found the image so that you can avoid problems later on. Just because an image is on the internet does not mean you can use it freely. Many museums or archives post images on their websites but even here they might not automatically own the copyright so always check with the appropriate department – there are usually links to these on the website. If you take your own photographs in a record office – perhaps of a letter or notice – you will need to check with that record office that you are free to use the image. The situation can be complicated as just because a museum/archives owns a picture/letter/photograph it does not automatically follow that it owns copyright or any other intellectual property rights in the item, so always check and where possible get written permission.
Don’t be afraid to use images but just keep everybody informed and keep records up to date.
Working in the Archive or Record Office
Before you go for your first visit, take a look at their website. There will generally be a page devoted to what to bring, how to find material and any restrictions, for example on numbers of items at one time. Being prepared before you go will save you a huge amount of time and indeed frustration. Some archives and institutions such as the British Library store materials at additional sites. This can mean a delay of 24 hours or more, so if you have any doubts contact them ahead of your visit to find waiting times.
One last thought. Staff in Record Offices, Museums, Archives, etc. have a lot on their plate. They will be happy to point you in the right direction and advise you on sources, but they cannot and will not do your research for you. The sources are there, but it is up to you to use them to discover your story – after all, that is where the fun lies.