Doing First World War research in a pandemic.

A guest blog post by Esther Lucy Janes, a postgraduate Information Management and Preservation on placement in Archives and Special Collections.

As the UK teeters in and out of new COVID-19 restrictions, the aspiration of normality by Christmas, looks more and more remote.

The phrase “over by Christmas” is widely recognised as an early – and naïve – assumption about the likely progress of the First World War, an irony not lost on some commentators on the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the pandemic started to spread to Europe earlier this year, I was planning the work for my dissertation, focused on the Centenary of the First World War at the University of Glasgow. As an aspiring archivist, it was exciting for me to be able to undertake this project in collaboration with Glasgow University Archive Services but then, in March 2020, the UK went into lockdown.

Fighting the war on COVID

The parallels of the COVID-19 pandemic with a wartime situation have been made many times.

In mid-March, UK prime minister Boris Johnston said that “Yes, this enemy can be deadly, but it is also beatable … And however tough the months ahead we have the resolve and the resources to win the fight.” He deployed the same kind of martial language four months later when he said, “…if we continue to pull together as we have done so far, I know we can beat this virus. Hoping for the best but planning for the worst – and it’s in that spirit that we must carry on waging this long, hard fight against Coronavirus.”

The 75th anniversary of VE Day, which took place while the nation was still in lockdown in May, prompted references specifically to the Second World War. Boris Johnston said the crisis “demands the same spirit of national endeavour” as shown in the War while Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – who has not utilised the war rhetoric – said in her daily briefing on 8 May 2020, that “…The challenge they faced then is, of course, very very different to the one we face today – we are not fighting a war – but we should nevertheless draw strength and inspiration from their example. They showed the necessity and value of personal sacrifice for the common good. They demonstrated the resilience of the human spirit and our ability to overcome adversity… Our challenge may be different but, just as they did, we will overcome it.”

Artists have even parodied wartime propaganda posters to try and convey key public health messages during the pandemic. For example, the requirement for people to stay at home has promoted several subversions of the famous First World War poster that tried to motivate men to leave their comfortable armchairs to do their duty for the nation.

James Hodson and Jason Keel, War on COVID-19, JackArts, May 2020

Jarvis Cocker, We’re all just getting through it the best we can, The Big Issue, August 2020

Making connections by reflecting on the Centenary

The Centenary at Glasgow University was strongly centred on the University Archives and used archive materials to put together the stories of the students and staff who served and died, and reveal how the University changed during this period. Archives staff were closely involved in coordinating many of the Centenary activities through the University’s Commemoration Group.

A significant part of my project was to speak to people who had been involved in these activities, to learn from them what it had meant and try to use that information to identify and select records for archiving.

The obvious impact of doing oral history during the pandemic was that all the interviews had to be conducted remotely by video conferencing or phone. This may have influenced the conversations – no matter how accustomed people have become to using these technologies for both business meetings and family get-togethers – the mediation through the machine means conversations will have a different flavour from physical face-to-face interactions. The second consideration was that while the topic of the First World War can be emotive at any time, it was very important to be sensitive to the fact that this might be an especially difficult and emotional time for many people.

The other aspect to be taken into account was the shade that the circumstances might cast on people’s reflections on the Centenary, and indeed comparisons and parallels between the First World War and the subsequent Spanish ‘flu were bought up by some of the interviewees.

For example, one person explained that as the students of 1914-18 left to join the War, the University kept detailed records of the stages the students had reached in order to maintain fair academic standards when (or if) they returned. They were reminded of this when the University implemented the ‘non detriment’ policy for student assessment this year. 

A student who had been involved with a creative project related to the Centenary said that the pandemic had now also brought another dimension to his feelings of connection with the students and young people of that period and gave him some new insights into how they might have felt when their lives were disrupted and thrown off course by the War.

Despite the difficult time, people were keen to participate in the interviews and I think that the experience of looking back on the collaborative work and experiences of the Centenary projects was a pleasant experience, and also a positive one for many of the participants.

Opportunities missed or insights gained?

A personal impact of the pandemic for me was that I wasn’t able to physically come into the Glasgow University Archives Service and I was really disappointed to not be able to work more closely with the staff members. Although I could go to the Memorial Garden, there were other places around the campus with connections to the Centenary that I couldn’t visit. In these circumstances the photographs that other people had taken around campus throughout the time of Centenary became crucial records for my project.

The disruption has also made me think about the opportunities, but also the limitations, of significant anniversaries. These anniversaries are ‘sites of memory’ for nations and communities, marking major events. Yet, as a result of the pandemic, events that were scheduled for 2020 to mark special anniversaries – such as 700 years since the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath – have been cancelled and may run next year instead. Will holding the events next year (or possibly even the year after that) make any real difference? If not, then do we need to continue with what historian Charles West has called “a fetishisation of round numbers”?

This year has been an unusual and challenging period for everyone; a time of new rules and restrictions; of worry, stress and grief; and of loss and disruption. Yet it was also a time of mutual support and shared community.

Though the concentrated focus of the First World War Centenary has now ended, communities and families will continue to want to know and pass on the stories like those in University’s Roll of Honour. But perhaps remembrance of the cataclysm of World War One may now have new poignancy as the pandemic continues to change all our lives.


Voices of the First World War: Over by Christmas – article by Imperial War Museum

Coronavirus: Boris Johnson sets out plan for ‘significant normality’ by Christmas – BBC News website 17 July

‘Over by Christmas’ – article in The Guardian newspaper

Prime Minister’s statement on coronavirus (COVID-19): 17 March 2020

Prime Minister’s statement on coronavirus (COVID-19): 17 July 2020

VE Day: UK marking 75th anniversary of end of WW2 in Europe – BBC News website on 8 May 2020

Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister’s speech, 8 May 2020

Khaly Nguyen: ‘Your space or mine. James Hodson and Jason Keet: War on Covid’ – article on JACKARTS website

‘Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?’, a British recruitment poster – British Library website

Illustration: ‘Daddy, what did you do in the Coronavirus..?’ War on Covid-19 Jackarts, May 2020

Illustration: Jarvis Cocker, We’re all just getting through it the best we can from The Big Issue, August 2020 . The Big Issue

Charlotte James Robertson – ‘It was just a time when one was hopeful’: Oral History interviewing in the time of COVID-19 – article from Women’s History Scotland website

Declarartion of Arbroath 700th Anniversary – Arbroath 2020 website

Charles West: ‘It’s about time: on centenaries and history-writing’ article from History Matters website, University of Sheffield

Categories: Archive Services, Archives and Special Collections, Library, Reflections

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