Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the last European war to involve just throwing thousands of men at each other in the hope of eventually overpowering the enemy.
A war the like of which we will – hopefully – never see again, it’s also a war which needs to be remembered, not only for the tens of thousands who lost their lives, but also for the impact it has had on subsequent conflicts, right up to the current civil war in Syria.
Chemical warfare was first deployed in the First World War, while the lessons learnt from deploying early, clunky, machinery helped shape the equipment forces went into battle with in the Second World War and beyond.
But what is in danger of being lost are the first-hand accounts of what life was like in the trenches, and the direct connection current generations feel to that war. There are many books, documentaries and films about the war, but as time ebbs on, the chance to read or hear first hand accounts from the trenches naturally diminishes. The same already applies to the Second World War too.
Which is what makes a discovery through Freedom of Information all the more remarkable. The Ministry of Justice, while researching an FOI request, discovered box after box of wills and letters written by soldiers from the trenches, which had been unseen – and one would assume, forgotten – for decades.
According to an article in the Yorkshire Post, there are around 230,000 wills – now available to view (at £6 each) online – of which around five per cent also include letters which weren’t delivered because they were deemed to be sensitive to military operations. And they’ve sat there ever since.
At the back of a notebook all soldiers were issued with during the war was a basic will to be completed and shared if they died. Most of the wills, say historians, are very basic, but even being able to see the different sorts of handwriting gives a clue to the level of education the men who died had.
The wills also explain how the soldiers died, processed by Ministry of Defence officials at the time.
It feels like an incredible tool, not only for journalists, but for people searching their family histories. To use it, you need to know the name of a soldier and the year they died – searching by regiment, which would be very useful for journalists, isn’t available. However, a brief trip to the local war memorial can soon yield the names which could unearth some very special first-hand thoughts.
Some people still argue FOI hasn’t achieved anything, that the mass of exemptions and generally negativity within the public sector towards the Act makes it a blunted instrument. I’d argue that finds like this help show it can achieve its aims – shining a light on the darkened corners of Government where, in some cases, government doesn’t even know what is lurking there.