Social media and the First World War, 100 years later

June 30 p2100 years ago today, a shot that was heard around the world made its reverberations known in the community of London, Ontario. At the time, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was unfortunate news, but hardly earth-shattering; its brief mention was restricted to an article on page 2 of the London Free Press, and then only to describe the funeral procession. There was no sense that this event would become the catalyst for a war unlike no other the world has seen before or since.

In the wake of 100 years of research, investigation, debate, and analysis, it’s easy to forget that we do not always know the import of what is happening in countries other than our own. The anti-climactic headline of June 30 1914 is a sobering reminder that we can never truly know what will become the watershed moments of history while they are still being lived.

Over the next several years, projects will be launched around the world to commemorate the centenary of the First World War and the sacrifices that were made there. In high school I remember learning about the “Great War,” and while we studied its global significance, I never got a sense of how its impact was felt by communities on the home front. One way of understanding localized responses to the unfolding events of war is to examine newspapers. Over the last several months I had the opportunity, along with my classmates in the Public History program, to co-create a First World War Twitter Project which restores a sense of locality and immediacy to the events of 1914 and 1915. Each of us combed through one month’s worth of London Free Press newspapers and crafted tweets from selected headlines, resulting in a “live” feed of 100-year-old London news. Later classes of Public History students will contribute to the project until its conclusion in 2018.

By no means are 100-year old newspapers a perfect representation of public response to the First World War; however, they do reveal much about prevailing attitudes towards important events. Through researching and selecting headlines, I learned a great deal about London during June 1914 and 1915. It is my hope that followers of the project will also gain a better understanding of their community as it existed and lived 100 years ago. The stories that emerge from the primary sources are ones of bravery, heartbreak, hope, and even humour. Creating this project was also a good opportunity to reflect on the process of editing historical material, and about reality versus my expectations – the expectation, for example, that the death of the Archduke would produce a full banner headline on page 1. No community experienced the First World War in the same way, and over the next four years there are bound to be headlines and quotes that surprise you.

Get a new appreciation for the events and the sacrifices of the First World War through these innovative historical Twitter projects, among many, many others:

  • London 1st World War – Our project from the Public History program at Western, highlighting headlines from the archives of the London Free Press.
  • WW1C – new perspectives on the First World War from the University of Oxford.
  • World War 1 Now – Reports from the front line, from the air, from the halls of power, from the newsrooms, from the high seas.
  • WW1 Day-by-day – Day-by-day centenary timeline
  • Old Grey Horror – Tweets from the war that gave birth to the modern era.
  • RealTimeWW1 – Follow every day with what has happened in the First World War.
  • Disability & WW1 – Factoids, vignettes, and sources on disability and the Great War.
  • WW1 Poetry Archive – Tweets from the team at the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford.
  • WW1 Diary Wakefield – The 1918 diary of George Kellett, held by Wakefield Council Museums.

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