Libraries across Europe are collaborating to make 400,000 documents available to the public
Remembrance Sunday will be marked for the first time today without the presence of a surviving serviceman from the Great War. Claude Choules, who served in the navy, died in May, aged 110.
Living witnesses to the war may no longer be with us, but British archives still hold a wealth of original documentation from those years and, although much of it is in danger of crumbling away, the range of testimony held by the British Library helps to broaden understanding of the war.
In an unprecedented effort to make this material available to the widest possible public, the library is to join forces with 12 European partners – including national libraries in Rome, Berlin, Paris and Copenhagen – to put key documents and images on the internet. The new three-year project, Remembering the First World War, will be finished in time for the ceremonies to mark the centenary of the outbreak of war in 2014.
More than 400,000 first world war source materials, many of them rare and highly fragile due to the deterioration of the paper on which they are printed, will be freely available online for the first time. Those interested in finding out more about the conflict will no longer have to apply to see documents in person in the reading rooms of Europe.
"It is particularly important that this project includes organisations that were involved in different sides of the conflict," said Jamie Andrews from the British Library, who is leading the British project.
"We feel this is a special and important collaboration. There is a lot of surprising material here, including the letters and postcards of German prisoners of war.
"Our German partners will also be releasing material about British soldiers held over there, as well as a lot of the fairly crude forms of propaganda that Britain dropped by balloon behind enemy lines."
The digital collection will include books, newspapers, trench journals, maps, music sheets, children's literature, photographs, posters, pamphlets, propaganda leaflets, art, religious works, medals and coins.
Sir Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate, is backing the launch of the scheme this weekend. "This is a tremendously important project that will transform access to Europe's shared cultural heritage in the run up to the anniversary of the war's outbreak in 2014," he said.
For Andrews and his team, one of the highlights is the insight offered into levels of censorship across the theatre of war. For instance, more than 130,000 Indian soldiers served on the western front with the wounded being treated in British hospitals. An office was set up at Boulogne under Captain EB Howell to censor all "Indian mails" going in and out of France.
The library's collection includes many letters that came under his scrutiny and which provide vivid testimony of how the Indian soldiers viewed the war, France and Britain.
The letters also reveal how their authors sought to evade the censor's pen; a lull in shelling, for example, is described with the phrase "the rain has stopped".