Eyewitness stories for a digital generation

Lizzie the Elephant Lizzie the Elephant who toiled for a Sheffield scrap dealer in the war is one of many colourful characters in the ebook

There is a colour photograph of a grand hall. Actually, it's the Great Hall of Birmingham University, normally used for graduations and special ceremonies.

Pull the tag across and the image changes. It's still the same huge space but now you can see a black and white image depicting rows of hospital beds, the ghostly faces of the sick and injured and the nurses in their stiff, starched whites at the back of the room.

It's a vivid contrast between a century ago and today. A swipe of a finger across a screen and you are transported back in time. That's what an ebook can do.

The BBC has published several ebooks on subjects ranging from "What's the Right Diet for You" to "A Celebration of 50 years of Horizon".

I've been working with London Factual's Digital Storytelling Team consisting of Alicky Sussman, my co-writer, editor and guide, Kimberly Wigger, technical producer, and our ER project executive Craig Henderson to turn "World War One At Home," a BBC English Regions and Nations project about the home front, into an free, interactive book.

The ebook is based on a project of the same name, in which BBC journalists worked alongside academics to gather stories about local people and places during WW1.

Quiet heroism

They uncovered tales of quiet heroism, humour and poignancy, many of which went into the ebook. For instance, there is a photo of a Beeston Boys Brigade Unit, Nottingham, all of whom signed up to fight in 1914.

Across the faces of many in the photograph have been written the poignant words "sick", "wd'd" (wounded), "missing" or "killed". Of the 27 men who joined up, only 16 returned (ebook p92).

A counterpoint is a wonderful larky portrait of "The Artists' Rifles" whose recruits included the war poet Wilfred Owen. The lads are posing, some wearing their caps askew, fags in their mouth, gazing insouciantly at the camera.

Harold Bing, a conscientious objector Harold Bing, a conscientious objector, who started a secret newspaper from his prison cell
Unprecedented access

Our lead partner, Imperial War Museums, allowed us unprecedented access to their film, sound, and photographic archives which uncovered a wealth of wonderful material.

Films of munitions girls at the National Shell Filling Station in Chilwell in Nottinghamshire, plus a new film the BBC Inside Out team in the region discovered.

There are injured patients at Brooksby Hall in Leicestershire playing football with matron, and footage of "Zeppelin Sunday", when tens of thousands of people made a pilgrimage from London to the tiny village of Cuffley in Hertfordshire to view the wreckage of the German airship SL11, shot down the night before.

There were also fascinating audio recordings such as Hartlepool local, Emily Beavis, describing the moment the town was shelled by German war ships; Harold Bing, a conscientious objector, who started a secret newspaper whilst in Winchester prison; and a recording of Agatha Christie, who worked as a VAD in the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay town hall, recalling her work in the dispensary with poisons - valuable information for her books!

Lizzie the elephant

The ebook also has its lighter moments with stories about the animals who did their bit for the war effort. Wonderful photographs of Lizzie the elephant who toiled for a local scrap merchant in Sheffield; Jim the coast-guard dog, who acted as an early warning system, by barking when he spotted German Zeppelin airships and, my favourite, a tale from BBC Radio Solent, about the failed attempt to use sea-lions to detect U boat spies... if you think about it, it was never going to work!

Compiling the stories for this e-book has been a big job for everyone involved. As ever, the best ones remind us that these were people like us, ordinary people, who were caught up in an extraordinary time. I hope we've done them justice.

To download this free interactive ebook, compatible for use on iOS, Android and Kindle Fire HD tablets, and discover more about the home front of Britain and Ireland, visit bbc.co.uk/ww1. There's also a pdf version there you can download too.


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