Extraordinary Personal Stories of World War 1

Untold and extra­or­di­nary real-life sto­ries from World War 1 have come to light and will be shared online as a result of fam­ily his­tory road­shows run by Euro­peana. They include a life-saving Bible, the first-hand tes­ti­mony of a cen­te­nar­ian, and a post­card from a 27-year-old sol­dier named Adolf Hitler, which sug­gests that the future dic­ta­tor had prob­lems with his teeth and his spelling.

In prepa­ra­tion for the 100th anniver­sary of the con­flict, WW1 road­shows have been held in Ger­many, Eng­land, Ire­land, Lux­em­bourg, Slove­nia and Den­mark. Peo­ple are invited to bring along WW1 mem­o­ra­bilia to be seen by experts and digi­tised. The Euro­peana 1914–1918 web­site also shows peo­ple how to upload their own dig­i­tal scans. The idea for the road­shows came from the suc­cess of the Uni­ver­sity of Oxford’s Great War Archive in 2008, funded by lead­ing UK edu­ca­tional tech­nol­ogy inno­va­tor, JISC.

Two thou­sand peo­ple of all ages from across Europe have attended the road­shows to share fam­ily sto­ries. Road­show par­tic­i­pants have been joined by online con­trib­u­tors and 45,000 pho­tos of objects, scanned let­ters and diaries have been uploaded onto the web­site to date. Most of these are pre­vi­ously unpub­lished and have never been seen or stud­ied out­side the families.

Jill Cousins, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Euro­peana said: “The project’s suc­cess high­lights the huge inter­est that Euro­peans have in their shared his­tory. Peo­ple pass their sto­ries down their fam­i­lies, and in Euro­peana have found the means to pre­serve them for future gen­er­a­tions, and make them uni­ver­sally acces­si­ble. Euro­peana brings a new approach to cul­tural his­tory, link­ing people’s own sto­ries to the offi­cial his­to­ries of the war that we’re col­lect­ing from the national libraries and archives.”

Markus Geiler con­tributed pic­tures of his grandfather’s life-saving Bible, with the lump of shrap­nel embed­ded in it from the grenade that killed his com­rades while they slept. He said: “I am here to show how a fam­ily story can actu­ally become part of the col­lec­tive mem­ory of Europe. I hope that there will be many, many such sto­ries, and the Euro­pean idea will develop even fur­ther when peo­ple deal together with the past and tell each other their stories.”

In Pre­ston, UK, John Stafford’s first hand account of the Bat­tle of the Somme was brought along by his daugh­ter Joan Almond, 85.  The typed man­u­script doc­u­ments Stafford’s expe­ri­ences and illus­trates how he coped with post trau­matic stress dis­or­der, decades before the con­di­tion was recog­nised. Stafford lay hor­ri­bly injured for two days until Allied troops found him and car­ried him across ‘Death Val­ley’ to med­ical help. Joan said: “I think the war must have haunted him a lot, espe­cially when you read his account. My mother used to encour­age him to write down his expe­ri­ences and this seemed to have a calm­ing influence.”

The par­tic­i­pa­tion of Irish­men in WW1 was polit­i­cally sen­si­tive and as a result many of their sto­ries have never been told. That was one rea­son why the Dublin road­show was the best attended in Europe so far. More than 600 peo­ple turned up, some queu­ing for hours, to share their mem­o­ra­bilia and sto­ries. They include a mar­vel­lous wartime love story, told by Joseph Heapes’ daughter-in-law, Máire, of how Joseph found the love of his life, Mary, while a pris­oner of war in Germany.

Sloven­ian cen­te­nar­ian Slavko Zupan is one par­tic­i­pant able to share his direct mem­o­ries of the war. His enthu­si­asm for the project was such that he vis­ited the road­show in Nova Gor­ica, Slove­nia, twice. To illus­trate his child­hood rec­ol­lec­tions Slavko brought along a bot­tle con­tain­ing a richly dec­o­rated wooden cru­ci­fix. It was made by a Russ­ian pris­oner of war in Slove­nia. Exist­ing on mea­gre rations, pris­on­ers crafted such objects to barter for food or cig­a­rettes. The cru­ci­fix has been in Slavko’s fam­ily since 1916.

The Munich road­show revealed what at first sight appears to be just one of many post­cards sent by sol­diers in the field. The post­card, ‘Greet­ings from Nurem­berg’, describes the sender’s recent trip to the den­tist and his desire to go back to the front line. That sol­dier was Adolf Hitler, writ­ing to his com­rade Karl Lanzham­mer in Decem­ber 1916.