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A Trenchant View of World War I
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Posted On October 24, 2013
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ProQuest Digitizes Trench Journals and Unit Magazines

Next year is the centennial of the beginning of World War I. It was July 1914 when what was then called the Great War (no one really believed there would be a second world war) began. Although there’s no dearth of books and articles on the subject, what’s been missing is the ordinary soldier’s perspective. With the digitization of 1,500 trench journals and unit magazines, ProQuest is filling this gap by providing access to unique primary sources. Mary Sauer-Games, vice president of ProQuest Information Solutions, thinks the collection provides “unparalleled access to rare and hitherto under-used publications. …”

The new database, Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War, announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Oct. 9, 2013, provides insights into life on the front, in training camps, in hospitals, at supply depots, and even in prisoner of war camps. Trench journals and unit magazines were a form of micropublishing, written by and for members of military units. They were unofficial and show various levels of editorial and typesetting expertise—some were printed on local printing presses while others were sent back to London, if it was a British unit, for publication.

Included in the journals and magazines are essays, short stories, jokes, comics, drawings, advertisements both fake and real, news, personal anecdotes, parodies, pastiches, and poems. In fact, some famous poets of World War I—think Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon—published poems in these magazines. The intent of the publications was both to inform and to entertain. Not all of the poems, for example, are on the same level as Owen’s and Sassoon’s, but they undoubtedly got a laugh from the troops. Originally designed to be read within the unit, some were sent home to enlighten friends and relatives. These had to pass muster with the censor, so some information is blacked out.

The Splinterproof journal shows a letter from the editor, some censored material, and a poem.

The Splinterproof journal shows a letter from the editor, some censored material, and a poem.

Challenges of Finding Source Material

Locating archival copies of the publications proved a challenge, according to John Pegum, ProQuest senior product manager of literature and the arts. The majority of those digitized are from the British Library (which acquired some from the British Museum when collections were merged) and IWM (Imperial War Museums) in London. However, complete runs were scarce, and partial runs were often scattered in multiple places, leaving it to the curators and ProQuest staff to put together a chronological collection of titles. Interest in the war is personal for the British Library: Just inside the staff entrance is a plaque commemorating British librarians who died during World War I.

Although the collections that comprise the first iteration of Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War are housed in the U.K., not all the materials originated from British military units. The collection also includes publications from Canadian, South African, and other Commonwealth countries, as well as the U.S. Nor are they all in English. German- and French-language publications exist, causing some speculation among at least the British Library staff with whom I spoke as to how they arrived in London.


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Marydee Ojala is the editor-in-chief of Online Searcher magazine, chairs WebSearch University, and is Program Development Director for Enterprise Search Summit.

Email Marydee Ojala
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