The World War I Document Archive
Created and maintained by World War I Military History online discussion group.
Visited Oct. 2003, June-July 2004.
First World War.Com: The War to End All Wars
Michael Duffy, site editor.
Visited March, June-July 2004.
You never know what’s going to grab you. For me, it was a brief film clip on First World War.Com of the Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand arriving in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The film lasts just eight seconds, but there I sat, watching it over and over, hoping that the film would reveal some secret to help me make sense of the worldwide cataclysm that followed the archduke’s assassination that same day. It did not, but at the two Web sites under review I did discover an abundance of primary and secondary sources for students and general readers similarly mystified by the persistent puzzle of World War I. Of the two sites, The World War I Document Archive will be of greater use for original research, while teachers and scholars who visit First World War.Com will find an online reference work of a richness and quality approximating print encyclopedias and document collections on the war.
The World War I Document Archive, authored and maintained by members of the World War I Military History online discussion group (wwi-l), is a treasure trove of research material. The site’s creators have posted or linked to several hundred historic documents; another section on Memoirs and Reminiscences gathers nearly a hundred works, including many full-length books uploaded in short segments of text that can be easily searched. (I only wish that the original pagination had been preserved.) While the reference apparatus is not yet fully developed (the Biographical Dictionary still lacks an entry on Woodrow Wilson), the primary source collections are unparalleled on the Web today and provide a wider range of original material than many university and college libraries can offer.
The World War I Document Archive is heavy on diplomatic correspondence and treaties, military records, and matters of political economy; English-language sources predominate, although all the warring nations are represented. The site’s diplomatic history is traditional but broad; it is to the credit of its creators that it effectively integrates material from world events of the World War I era that are often handled as if they were discrete and unrelated events: the Russian Revolution, the Armenian genocide, the Balfour Declaration and the question of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Social historians have plenty to work with: the military documents include the voices, drawings, and song lyrics of ordinary soldiers at the front, as well as the writings of military women. But total war also required the home front mobilization of labor, religion, the family, and popular culture—areas of life that are not adequately represented at either site.
The World War I Document Archive reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the multiauthor approach to site building. It feels participatory and collaborative, but it does not so much announce a coherent interpretation as convey its creators' passions for the history of World War I. And those enthusiasms can be quirky: subsections on medical and naval history are marvelously rich, but pray tell—why all the photographs of camels?
A wonderful complement to the document archive, First World War.Com presents the war in an elegantly designed and easy-to-navigate site. Refreshed every week to offer a new selection of material on its front page, the site takes full advantage of the Web’s multimedia possibilities. Along with a photo gallery and a massive collection of wartime posters, individual pages are heavily illustrated; hyperlinks thoroughly connect one section to another. The site also features a small archive of vintage film: students wishing to consider the myth (or “myth”) of war enthusiasm in the summer of 1914 can observe pro-war and antiwar rallies in Berlin, Paris, and London. Even more valuable are the period audio clips, featuring political speeches as well as dozens of songs both familiar and forgotten (worth a listen is Ernie Mayne’s “My Meatless Day”). The scanned maps, unfortunately, are nearly impossible to read.
Like its counterpart, First World War.Com takes an old-fashioned approach to the history of war: there is much to read, hear, and see about generals and their military strategies and about diplomatic intrigues in Berlin and Washington. Of course we need to know about the 1915 dismissal from Washington of the German naval attaché Karl Boy-Ed. But the history of World War I will remain incomplete until we understand how the war mobilized not just Boy-Ed but the volunteer labor of the Boy Scouts and the coercive surveillance of groups such as the Boy Spies of America. Likewise, the Who’s Who page offers crisp, brief biographies of hundreds of leading figures in the military and diplomatic realms, but little on the domestic politics of the nations involved: Pierre Dubois, a French military commander at the Battle of Verdun, merits an entry, but W. E. B. Du Bois does not. The sections on Primary Documents and on Memoirs and Diaries are brief, abridged, and all translated into English—which makes the site less helpful for original research but invaluable for teaching and reference.
The Feature Articles section of First World War.Com is a decidedly mixed bag. Some essays provide important background information or clear up basic matters of fact—students unable to distinguish a platoon from a division should be sent here for penance. But too often the interpretations do not reflect contemporary scholarship. A shoddy and homophobic essay on T. E. Lawrence’s sexuality is probably best ignored; the entry on “U.S. Propaganda in the First World War” credits a notorious quotation, “Lead this people into war, and they’ll forget there was ever such a thing as tolerance,” to Woodrow Wilson—an attribution debunked in the pages of this journal in 1967, not long after it changed its name from the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. I would not allow my students to use the Feature Articles in a paper. But I will link to both sites from my class Web sites, and I will refer to both on a regular basis for my own teaching and research.
I will also return to the film of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and even to the photographs of the camels. Their presence makes us confront World War I as a conflict both ancient and modern, both European and global, that cannot be contained even in the sprawling expanse of the World Wide Web. Camels are enigmatic, inscrutable, and deeply stubborn animals. Just like war itself.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology