Inside team war diary…

Its time for an update on what’s we’ve been doing — there’s lots to tell.

Our volunteers have been actively classifying and tagging pages over the last weeks – almost 300,000 of them since we launched the project in January. This is fantastic achievement and will enable a whole new understanding of the Western Front over the coming months and years. We owe you all a huge amount of thanks and so does anyone who cares about how the war is understood and remembered. We all owe particular thanks to the volunteer moderators who are answering queries, organising discussions and ensuring respectful converations on the Talk forum.

The project team have also been busy. Before I update you on what we’ve been working on, it makes sense to restate the 3 aims of Operation War Diary:


  1. to provide evidence about the experience of named individuals in IWM’s Lives of the First World War project and to contribute to their permanent digital memorial
  2. to present academics with large amounts of accurate data to help them gain a better understanding of how the war was fought
  3. to enrich The National Archives’ catalogue descriptions for the unit war diaries – this will enable you and others to find what they want in those 1.5 million diary pages, in future

Citizen History is a two way street –volunteers must get at least as much out as the effort they put in. Our own experience of doing Operation War Diary tells us that this work gives us a fine-grained, close-up view of the Western Front. It makes us think about the war in ways we never did before and leads us on to learn more from other sources – it t as an “engine of motivation.”

So, what have we been doing since the project launched on January 14th…..

1. Achieving Consensus

The team have been heavily preoccupied with analysing the data from the first months of tagging. The aim is to produce sets of ‘consensus data’ from the classifications and tags submitted by volunteers. ‘Consensus data’ is a set of facts that describes the contents of each diary page, based on combining the work of several people (usually 5 per diary page). This is a complex task as diary pages are much richer in content than other Zooniverse projects and so the Operation War Diary data has unique challenges. We are getting close and soon we will be able to start sharing that data – for researchers and to historians to analyse. We will also share it with you online so you can see the fruits of the combined labour of our volunteers. We already know there are 10s of thousands of names in the diaries classified so far and that will be shared along with the other data.

2. New features and improvements

Volunteers have given us plenty of feedback about improvements they’d like to see. Many have already been added to the system. We will soon be releasing an updated version of Operation War Diary. The main changes that volunteers will notice will be the addition of new tags that properly describe the activities of specialist units and some tags we didn’t include in the initial system (e.g. counts of casualties). These features have been tested by volunteers (thank you again) and new help text has been created for the Field Guide. This will be released in the next couple of weeks – the system won’t look much different, but will enable more precise tagging.

3. Lives of the First World War

Everyone who served during Britain and the former Empire during the First World War will be part of this permanent digital memorial. The data generated by Operation War Diary volunteers will include hundreds of thousands of named individuals, including significant numbers of Other Ranks. These will be added to Lives of the First World War to be connected to their Life Stories. Creating Lives of the First World War is a major undertaking and requires significant ongoing effort from me and my IWM colleagues. This work will mean that the work done here by volunteers can be part of something much, much larger. We cannot over emphasise how deeply these projects relate to each other and how the work we are doing on Lives of the First World War contributes significantly to Operation War Diary by giving it an enduring purpose.

Citizen History is about YOU!

One area where we have not been as active as we would like is on the Talk forum here. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, the level of effort being applied in the areas listed above leaves us little time for forum contribution. Secondly, the Talk forum is for everybody – it is intended for you and everybody else to discuss their findings in the diaries with each other. Or to seek collaboration on areas of focussed interest with other Citizen Historians. They are not intended as a means of conducting a one-to-one conversation with IWM or The National Archives. We are keen for professional historians from academia and elsewhere to join those conversations, but we are also very happy for it to be a space for Citizen Historians to engage with each other. It is not, and will never be, a museum enquiries service for Western Front history. We have made several efforts to engage academic historians with the Talk forum and we will continue to do so, but we do not wish to create the expectation that we will ever guarantee any level of response from us to your history enquiries. By reading the diaries, volunteers are gaining expertise themselves (of course many already have a great deal) – please take the initiative and conduct conversations with other Citizen Historians.

Where else can you go?

If you have a query that has come up during your work on Operation War Diary, do not hesitate to also discuss it elsewhere. The Great War Forum is a fantastic, vibrant community with a deep knowledge of the war and a great place to explore aspects of that history.

Browsing the diaries

There has been an on-going discussion about browsing the diaries on the Talk forum. The aims of this project are restated above and they do not include the creation of a diary browser. Operation War Diary is built using the powerful Zooniverse crowdsourcing platform. This is designed to present a series of images for classification and tagging by volunteers and to optimise that process. However, it is not designed to be a diary browsing tool. We appreciate that some people wish to view the whole diary. You can download full diaries from The National Archives, for a very reasonable fee. There are no charges for visitors to their reading room at Kew and there is also free access in many libraries and universities.

Keep going!

The work done by volunteers has been beyond our expectations. I look forward to sharing some of the data with you very soon. People often tell me how much they enjoy tagging the diaries and how it enriches their understanding of the war – I know its enriched my understanding. Please keep it up – the work is incredibly valuable as the aims make clear. Please join the conversation on Talk and encourage others to do likewise – whether they are new to First World War history or professional historians. Everything you do matters to public understanding of the war and you are making a contribution its centenary.

How can you and others encourage more people to join the conversation on the Operation War Diary Talk forums? Tell us in the comments below.

Luke Smith, Digital Lead, First World War Centenary Programme, Imperial War Museums

3 responses to “Inside team war diary…”

  1. Kevin Tynan Bowe says :

    Great to have some feedback on the ‘Big’ picture. Thank you. I shall continue my efforts and keep on tagging….

  2. rita calcen says :

    Congratulations with the Award ! It is a fantactic experience to work on the diary’s, it takes you realy inside the war, trenches, mud, waiting, moving etc. I’m from Nieuwpoort, close to Ieper and all of us are still under the influence of the great war…. we all grew up with story’s.

  3. Marie Eklid says :

    Thank you for the update, very interesting. When tagging these diaries, I realize the sacrifice these men made in this awful war, and the places where they fought. It has put me in the picture of what my Grandfather went through. He was a veteran of the Boar War and in the Rifle Brigade in WW1. 2nd Battle of Ypres and 2nd attack on Bellewaarde. Wounded. The only thing I believe he said about it was “That it was hell on earth!. He was lucky to come back.

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