I’ve said before how exciting I find it is to hear of fabulous new projects that relate to preserving history, well … here’s another one. Professor Michael Durey, from Western Australia’s Murdoch University is undertaking an ambitious project to chronicle the lives, deaths and memorialisation of 1700 British officers who were killed on the Western Front in the WWI.

It sounds like an amazing project doesn’t it? Well let me tell you that Professor Michael Durey’s “collective biography” is the first of its kind and aims to use a wealth of information to examine long-held beliefs about the war, and part of his “whole of life” approach involves an exploration of the In Memoriam notices from post-war newspapers, which will give further insight into not only the soliders who were killed, but also their families. Professor Durey says  “following the war, In Memoriam notices were a daily reminder of individual deaths, and thus sustained memories of a personal, rather than a collective sacrifice. Unlike histories of battles and leaders, these offer insight into how those left behind dealt emotionally with grief and how they reinterpreted the meaning of the war over time.”

Professor Durey’s WWI project has received funding from the Australian Research Council. Researching the lives of 1700 people as you can imagine, will take time, so this is expected to be a three year project, but not only an interesting one, a very valuable one as well as even with the research that has been done so far, it is challenging widely held beliefs, such as the war being unpopular and the British Army badly led.

“The British Army in WWI has a pretty poor reputation in popular folklore. There’s a view that the general officers were useless, sitting in chateaux miles behind the lines, and the junior officers were twits, but the reality is much more complex,” Professor Durey said.

“Part of my research is looking at how and where officers died to get a sense of what they did on the battlefields. Most were killed in large attacks, leading from the front. In fact, 224 British general officers were killed or wounded in the conflict, which shows they weren’t cloistered away. By 1916, a regulation came down from high command that no general was to go to the front line. All of this supports the view most historians now hold – that the British Expeditionary Force advanced along a learning curve that enabled it to play the major role in winning the war in 1918.”

Professor Durey has said that his methodology provided pathways for anyone looking to research British relatives who had served in WWI, as so much information is now available online, including the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, Ancestry.com and the newspaper archives.

Without doubt this is a project which will offer unprecedented insight into the lives and deaths of British officers in WWI. He states that the study “is time consuming – and no one else has been reckless enough to investigate 1700 officers – but the resources are there for everyone.”