Researching the First World War through personal objects

1914 Star bar trio. Image courtesy of William Spencer.

1914 Star bar trio. Image courtesy of William Spencer.

Although all of the service personnel who saw operational service between 4 August 1914 and 11 November 1918 are all gone, tangible evidence connecting them to the First World War is still all around us.

Memorials and headstones in public places are by far the most obvious pieces of evidence recording the service of those who served and in many cases died for the British Empire. But what about the smaller items tucked away on bookshelves or in drawers or cupboards?

There are many personal objects such as medals, documents (both official and private), photographs, books and letters, which can be interpreted to unlock the career of someone who served in the British Armed Forces between 1914 and 1918.

Many surviving items from the period are subtle signposts, illustrating a particular aspect of the war and connecting a given individual with the war. By reading a document or letter, understanding and reading the naming on a medal or unpicking the subtleties of a photograph, you can gain a greater understanding of the part played by an individual in the events which happened 100 or so years ago.

If you can read a document, what can you extract from it to help you unlock surviving archival material?

If you use the term ‘a picture means a thousand words’, could that mean that by interpreting a First World War period photograph you can then read a thousand words from with the surviving archives of that period?

If you look at a memorial plaque/dead man’s penny or an ID/dog tag, what can they tell you and lead you to?

Over the coming weeks, I will endeavour to unlock and provide advice about some of those tangible yet subtle First World War related items, many of which go unnoticed or unconsidered, yet have the potential to reveal so many different tales.


  1. ericvgoulding says:

    Thank you ever so for you article post. Really Great.

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