November 6, 2007

Peace and War website combines human stories and state-of-the-art technology

Hamilton, ON - War and peace: they are two opposing forces that have profoundly shaped our country and our world, forces that are being captured in a massive project to take unique archival materials and showcase them on a state-of-the-art website.

A team in the Division of Archives and Research Collections at Mills Memorial Library at McMaster University has worked for five months on a website project, funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage, entitled “Peace and War in the Twentieth Century”. They plan to tell the compelling, human stories captured in one of the most comprehensive archival collections in North America. 

Diaries, letters, photographs, popular songs, recruiting posters, propaganda material and trench maps – much of the materials previously unpublished - will all be painstakingly digitized to bring this world-renowned collection to a wider public.

“This site will be educational but we also bring it down to a very personal, human level,” says Carl Spadoni, director of archives and research collections.  “Whether it is a soldier’s letters home or the deeply personal diaries of a nurse caring for the wounded, these are materials which can be used by researchers, students and faculty and also the public at large.”

While waging peace and waging war are the two overarching themes of the website, it will be broken down into compact thematic modules including, the life of a soldier, the Homefront, propaganda, sabotage and spying, peace activism and women and war. 

Take for example the diaries of Jane Abbott, an American living in Vienna in the days before the First World War. She recounts the eerie silence as two horse-drawn hearses containing the bodies of the assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie are paraded through the street: “The march of the soldiers, a long easy swinging gait impressed me,” she writes. “No flowers, no music, uncovered head, and silence. A terrible, terrible thing to happen in a civilized world.”

And then there are the strange, poignant moments of war, such as the “Christmas truce”, which began Christmas Eve of 1914 when the guns fell silent at the Western Front.  German and English soldiers laid down their weaponry, sang Christmas carols to one another across the trenches, and even exchanged small gifts. The event, which has achieved almost mythical status in the lore of the First World War, is carefully recorded in the letters of Gerald Blake, who served with the London Rifle Brigade in the British Expeditionary Force.

The University’s massive collection of World War I military maps – one of the largest in the country – will also be built into the Peace and War website. The maps, which include over 400 trench maps, artillery maps and officers’ planning maps, are mostly from the Allied forces, but also include some from German and French troops.

Yet it isn’t just the maps themselves that tell the remarkable story of war. It is the scribbled notes of the soldiers, outlining detailed battle strategies, specifically the dangerous trench raids – a practice invented by Canadian soldiers. 

And while much of the site is devoted to times of war, an equally crucial element is the struggle for peace.  Archival material includes documents from the peace movements of the late sixties and the anti-Vietnam War movement, war resisters, not to mention the peace activities of Bertrand Russell as well as modern day peace movements.

 “The theme of peace has real, present-day relevance and it needs to be celebrated,” says Kathy Garay, the archivist who is heading up the project.  “We are trying to make this website as current as possible and certainly our collections related to the peace movement are unique to North America in terms of depth and breadth.”

The entire project is scheduled to be completed in May of 2008.

McMaster University, a world-renowned, research-intensive university, fosters a culture of innovation, and a commitment to discovery and learning in teaching, research and scholarship. Based in Hamilton, the University, one of only four Canadian universities to be listed on the Top 100 universities in the world, has a student population of more than 23,000, and an alumni population of more than 125,000 in 125 countries.