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Last Updated: Friday, 11 November 2005, 12:28 GMT
The race to remember
British troops in France go "up the line" to their trenches. PA photo

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Of the millions who fought in World War One, just a handful remain. It is now a race against time to record their memories of an event so many nations vowed never to forget.

World War One will soon to cease to be an event in living memory. Of the millions of men who fought for Britain, just 10 survive. Their average age is 106, and this year is seen as the last chance to make a record of what happened to them almost a century ago.

For decades many of those who survived the trenches spoke nothing of their experiences. Some wanted to forget, others felt it wasn't done to rake over past times.

Field of memorial poppies
Lest we forget
But today personal recollections are recognised as a way to shine a light on the past. WWI veterans have been sought out, asked to open up in their twilight years, and have found a receptive audience among loved ones, historians and the public.

Their stories bring life on the front lines into sharp focus. And telling details - the drinking water stored in old petrol cans which tasted different depending on whether it was BP or Shell; the look of joy in the eyes of a dying man as he gasped his last word, "Mother!" - recounted in programmes such as BBC One's The Last Tommy illustrate there is still much to be said about an event of which so much is known.

For in addition to the history lessons, the war films and novels which recount true-life and fictionalised accounts, there is a wealth of documentary evidence. It was the first "multimedia" conflict, captured on film and in photographs as well as dispatches from the front.

Oral history

Personal stories have long been valued - diaries and letters handed down, oral histories passed on by elders - but the advent of portable recording devices in the 1950s started the trend for sound archives.

Will WWI be more distant when veterans have died?
Among the first to embark on large-scale projects to record WWI veterans' stories were the National Army Museum and the Imperial War Museum's Sound Archive, a project which began in the 1970s.

Even then there was a sense that time was running out, that numbers were dwindling.

"Then some academics were resistant to using [oral history] as opposed to written documentary sources, but now overlook it at your own risk," says Dr John Alban, county archivist for Norfolk.

And recordings have democratised history. "They say there's a book inside every man, but few will write it. Oral history means that anyone's story can be told."

Such recollections provide rich source material for museum displays, writers such as Birdsong author Sebastian Faulks, and the Aardman animators, who did a series on World War Two's Bristol Blitz.

"The recollections of old soldiers can be very moving, and convey the sense of danger and boredom of being in the trenches," says Dr Alban, himself an ex-military man. "It's through their memories that we know about things like walking on duckboards across stinking mud, which didn't feature in the history books."

Private lives public

The Imperial War Museum has a vast archive of WWI soldiers' tales, which is available to the public.

All these years I've been trying to forget; it's all being raked up again
Alfred Anderson, 109
Richard McDonough, of the sound archive, says personal accounts make the Great War accessible. "People relate to individual stories. They can make comparisons with their own lives, can think 'that could have been me'.

"Interest in family history has developed at the same time. Many people have a recent ancestor who fought in the war. For many, there's no personal contact as their relative has already passed away, but hearing others' stories fills the gap."

And for those keen to see for themselves where their ancestors fought, there are battlefield tours such as those at Ypres and the Somme.

For the few veterans who remain, their private lives have become public property. Alfred Anderson - at 109 the last man alive to have witnessed the unofficial truce on Christmas Day 1914, when German and British soldiers played football and exchanged gifts - had thought the war was behind him.

"See all these years I've been trying to forget. It's all being raked up again. I thought I was going to die peaceful like."


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