Creating a digital archive of World War One lives

Commissioning Editor, History

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A few nights ago, I found myself sitting at my desk strewn with sepia photos, flicking through the curled yellowing pages cut from an old notebook. It was a diary written by my great uncle Algy, who served with the Seaforth Highlanders in World War One. 

Algy Davidson was an English and Classics teacher at Dingwall Academy in the Scottish highlands. He was very sporty and had even had a trial for the Heart of Midlothian football club. But when the war came he volunteered as a stretcher bearer in 1914. He was badly injured at the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle in 1915 and sent home. Despite this he had recovered enough by 1916 to re-join as a second lieutenant in the Seaforth Highlanders alongside his brother Don, my grandfather.

On 9th April, 1917 Algy was wounded in the Battle of Arras. He was on his way back to a dressing station when he was shot and killed by a sniper. He was 30 years old.

Ninety years later my teenage son Alex and I were driving through France on our way to Italy when I suggested putting the Highlands Cemetery in Roclincourt in to the satnav as I knew that was where Algy was buried. It turned out to be only five miles away.  When we found his gravestone we were surprised and moved to realise Algy stood for Alexander James – coincidentally the same name of my son.

A relative had told me Algy had left behind a diary, chronicling his experiences in the six months leading up to his death.

Algy Davidson (centre) during the First World War, Martin Davidson's great uncle

Leafing through it I discovered it was full of patriotic stoicism. The war was something that had to be fought and had to be won, if only to allow them all to get home again and never have to fight another war like it.

Reading it, it struck me how different it was from the feeling expressed by Wilfred Owen’s poems. Algy’s last entry was full of vigour despite the hardships.

He writes: "I am suffering from an abscess which is very irritating but I must carry on as cheerfully as possible. I give 'bon chance' to Capt. Will and other officers proceeding up the line.”

He went on: “In the evening we attend to our platoons. There is much aeroplane activity, the sky being clear for good observation. At night we write some parting letters to friends. Tomorrow we proceed up the line and take up our position. God help us in the fight and grant us Victory."

Looking at these ghostly scribbles of a long-dead man, I realised there were so many questions I would have loved to have asked him.  What did he think he was fighting for? Was it simply for King and Country – a concept that is so hard to fathom today? And sitting in the mud and blood of the trenches, did he think it a cause worth sacrificing his life for?

I know I am just one of millions who has pondered such questions about World War One. That is why it has been my privilege, as head of commissioning history television, to plan the coverage that asks them.

For instance why did the conflict start so unexpectedly? It still astonishes, and chastens us today, when we are reminded that the day before the Archduke was assassinated on June 28th 1914, the prospect of war was non-existent. Even as the aftermath of the shooting started to unfurl it barely made it beyond page 5 of the London Times. No crisis preceded it – unlike 1939 – no tensions were apparent. Yet 37 days later the world was at war.

Why did the war so quickly become one of stalemate and attrition? The conflict, which was supposed to be over by Christmas, didn't reach its bloody conclusion until 4½ years later. During the conflict 65 million men had put on their country’s uniform. By 1918 an estimated total of 10 million lay dead, while many others were grievously wounded in body and mind.  Why was the technology so capable of killing yet so incapable of delivering a military breakthrough.

As one historian explained to me, on the day of the battle of Waterloo, 20,000 cannon balls were fired; on one day on the Western Front, millions of high explosive shells could be exchanged – and yet the Front barely moved or expanded.  And in the words of another, generals before the First World War could see their own troops, though not communicate with them; after the Frist World War, generals could not see their troops, but had the technology to communicate with them.  The First World War then was unique therefore in denying its generals either clear line of sight or reliable radio contact.

It is a war, therefore, whose outbreak, and prosecution, still arouse controversy and a war that ended more messily still. Within twenty years, it was clear the 'war to end all war' had not wrought a lasting peace. Instead, an even more destructive world war would erupt from its ashes.  My other grandfather was German, born in 1906, the son of an army barrack commander, but too young to fight himself. 

Nevertheless in the years after the war, like many thousands of other Germans, he was convinced Germany had not been defeated, merely betrayed.  In 1926, he joined the Nazi Party, and remained a Hitlerite fanatic all the way through to 1945, ending up a an officer in the SS. The world that created the war bears very little resemblance then to the world the war created after it.  As historian John Horne so brilliantly puts it, (the war) 'arose from the rupture between intention and outcome.'

World War One was triggered by an assassination in Sarajevo, and arguably, did not properly 'end' until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. How then, do you plan to mark such a significant historical event?

Well, we’ve been busy planning and discussing since 2011 as, unlike our grandparents, we knew this moment was coming.  I believe the number of projects that we’ve dedicated to this single topic is unprecedented – yet it barely scratches the surface.  What underwrites our plans?  First, with a huge commitment to the complexity of the war, its causes, defininging episodes, and its consequences.  But secondly, with a desire to understand it; as both an experience that none of us by definition, can ever share, and as one of the key factors in creating the world in which we all still live.

Forthcoming BBC programming to mark the World War One Centenary.

The digital portal is where we hope people will discover: What does the First World War mean to me and my family?  

Working in partnership with the Imperial War Museums, who have made a national call for memories, photos, letters, diaries, memorabilia - a digital collection of lives of the First World War - an offering which will sit alongside the IWM's extraordinary plan to collate and make available 8 million WW1 service records. 

We hope you will share your photos and diaries to enrich this resource and help you answer any questions you might have about them. Who is that man or woman in your old photo? What was their war experience?

Secondly, we want this portal to reveal what World War One means to your community.

All you will need to do is enter your location, to unlock local WW1 stories, in the form of 2 minute audio-clips taken from the local radio WW1 At Home. This project is collecting 100 stories for every English region, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We also want to provoke debate, which will continue long after the end credits of our programmes have rolled.

We want to stimulate the curiosity of audiences.  So we are creating a range of specially commissioned interactive online features. Each will be introduced by a key BBC presenter and allowing our users the chance to work their way through properly structured historical questions.

Topics will range from the reality of life in the trenches, to the role of propaganda in our first experience of a Total War, to what women did, to how poetry influences our recollections of the war.

It is our hope that by the time our commemoration draws to a close, four years on, we will have succeeded in creating nothing less than a digital cenotaph, to stand in fitting remembrance.


Martin Davidson is Head of Commissioning, BBC History


Controller, Adrian van Klaveren introduced the BBC's plans to commemorate World War One in a special blog for About the BBC. There's more about the BBC's plans to commemorate World War One on

Craig Henderson, Head of English Regions Programming also introduced the World War One at Home project in a blog post in October. 

Keep up to date on our World War One commemoration plans here, or by signing up to our newsletter. 


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