Whatever you do, keep good records
Is anything comparable being done today?
As I have noted before, it never ceases to amaze me how detailed British record keeping was during the First World War. It seems everything was written down, often in real time by the people who were right there. It’s what has allowed me to uncover and reconstruct the story of what happened to my great-grandfather a hundred years after the fact, when no one else in the family knew much of what happened. There were also no personal letters from him as far as I know.
With British records, (some online, others in the National Archives in London), I could figure out such particular pieces of information as the serial number of the plane he was flying in when shot down, the precise minute it had taken off from the aerodrome, who his crew mates were, and much more.
It’s hard to imagine this level of detail being systematically collected and organized in a conflict today. Take the war in Ukraine, the biggest and most consequential non-civil war happening in 2023. Would it be possible to track the movements of any solider on a day-to-day basis? Maybe. The New York Times and others have done some remarkable reconstructions of key battles and other incidents. But much of the information came from deep analysis of surveillance video, and a huge amount of investigative research (such as forensic-level tracking of calls from Ukrainian cell phones that were stolen by Russian soldiers). This is not easy work. Often it requires specialists, money, and the resources of a large corporation or government.
The sheer amount of digital information that exists in our society makes it feel like anything can be found out, reconstructed in the form of a story.
But what strikes me is that in the First World War, there were clerks and bureaucrats doing largely the same thing, only with pens, paper and typewriters.
And the British weren’t alone. The Germans had a similar commitment to intense record keeping. When I started trying verify that my great-grandfather had been captured and held as a POW by the Germans in 1918, I was stunned to discover how easy it was to find the irrefutable evidence.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has published pretty much all of the POW records from the First World War online, free for anyone to inspect. If you have a name and date of birth for someone who was captured, you’ll be able to find it.
All of this is possible only because the Germans kept meticulous records of who was a POW. In some ways, “meticulous” doesn’t do it justice. Look at this.
The above picture is part of a page taken from a German POW logbook. You can see my great-grandfather’s name, John Richardson. Right below him is his crew mate and pilot from the mission where they went down, Alfred Tapping. On a different page of the same logbook is the third crew member, Jack Chalklin (who was recorded as John in the book).
But again, the detail. The logbook shows they were from the RAF, it lists where and when they were captured. It lists their birthdates, even where they were born and who their fathers are. This book is from a POW camp at Landshut, just one of the camps they spent time at. Every time they moved, their details were recorded again, so it’s possible to trace where they went and how long they stayed at each location.
Not only is it astounding that the Germans kept such detailed records, but that the logbooks survived the war. Now in the hands of the ICRC and completely digitized and searchable, it’s an incredible resource.
Of course, many of the detailed records now available to inspect were kept secret for decades after the war. The documents in the National Archives that I’ve looked at were made public in 1969. But it’s only possible to see them now because they existed, were preserved, and, crucially, organized.
When I tried to find documents specifically about my great-grandfather, I had to physically go to the Archives to look at them (they weren’t digitized). But a simple search on the website at least confirmed they exist. And when I showed up, the documents were waiting for me in a box. That could only be possible because of a sophisticated library and archives system that had been in place and operating for a really long time.
Will people in the future be able to reconstruct today’s conflicts with similar accuracy and detail? It’s tempting to say yes, thanks to the overwhelming amount of information being produced. I have my doubts, however. If the information isn’t preserved and organized in logical, systematic ways so that it can be easily searched, it will be lost forever.
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