Friday, 23 February 2018

Connecting all the pieces

This week we have a post from our current Durham at War intern, Steven.

My time at County Hall arrived a little unexpectedly. If you told me in the final months of 2017 that I would be working on a First World War project in Durham at the start of 2018, I probably wouldn’t have believed you, but life has its ways of surprising you from time to time. The opportunity arose from Teesside University’s Graduate Internship Scheme - a scheme which offers the previous calendar years alumni the chance to work full-time for three months in a real working environment, giving them the skills and experience to kick on and land their first graduate role. Graduates who were applying were advised to pick their three favourite jobs available from the Teesside University careers website, and then interviewed to decide their suitability to the roles they had applied for. As a History graduate, the Durham at War project immediately stood out to me as something that I would really like to be a part of. I have always had a keen interest in modern European History, and was excited by the opportunity to use the analytical and research skills that I developed during my undergraduate degree in a professional capacity. With that in mind, I made the project my first choice, conveyed my passion for the role and was thankfully offered the job! 
Embroidered postcard showing the British and Australian flags (D/DLI 7/913/179)
D/DLI 7/913/179 Embroidered postcard showing the British and Australian flags
Arriving for my first day of work on a cold January morning, I naturally felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness - what tasks will I be given? Will I find it easy to integrate into a new team? Thankfully, any worries I had were soon put to bed. There is a fantastic team of helpful and hard-working people who work in the Record Office, and the success of Durham at War and all the other projects the team work on is testament to their attitude and reflective of their personality. Jo and Victoria, whose office I work in, made me feel really comfortable and gave me some interesting work to get started on. One of the first tasks I was given was to enter the strong rooms and locate some historical documents on Durham Light Infantry (DLI) soldiers who fought in the First World War. Some of these documents were love letters, photographs, diary entries and more. I found it compelling and impactful to be holding these documents in my hand, documents which 100 years ago were in the hands of soldiers who were risking their lives every day for their country. It is a very personal and engaging kind of history, a feeling of getting to know these soldiers with the full knowledge that it is sadly unlikely that they will have survived the war. I often find myself thinking ‘Please don’t die… Please don’t die’ as I search through the soldiers’ documents, only to be disappointed when I notice their dates of death fall within the confines of the war. Soldiers who survived are treated as mini victories - fuelling feelings of hope and prosperity. 
Embroidered postcard showing the British and Canadian flags (D/DLI 7/913/178)
D/DLI 7/913/178 Embroidered postcard showing the British and Canadian flags
The project is clearly enjoyed by volunteers, whose work has been a vital to the success of Durham at War. One of my other tasks while working at the Record Office has been moderating the work of these volunteers, and I have enjoyed learning from some of the fascinating things they share on the website. In particular, the stories which focus on Durham men who immigrated to Canada and Australia before the start of the First World War, and then fought for these countries, have been of keen interest to me. I had no idea so many men from the Durham area fought in these armies. As volunteer Jean has noted: ‘Of the 400,000 Canadians who volunteered for service in the First World War, 70% of these were recent immigrants from Britain, and just under 3000 came from County Durham’. This is a fairly remarkable statistic, demonstrating that British immigrants still felt a strong sense of nationalistic pride for their home country, and what’s more that a desire burned in Durham men to defend their home county. I have recently begun my own research into Australians who descend from Durham, and have posted stories about them on the website. I have enjoyed going into the search room and using Ancestry to find out as much as possible about these soldiers. There is a certain reward in unravelling that vital piece of information you were looking for - may it be finding information from censuses, military records, or immigration records. It is about connecting all the pieces of the puzzle, and creating the most accurate and detailed description of history as possible.

Moving forward, and approaching the halfway point of my internship with the Record Office, I’m excited by the challenges that will unfold in the coming weeks and grateful for my experiences thus far. I certainly feel that my experience here will hold me in good stead when applying for jobs in the future, and feel proud to be part of a project which engages the community with their past. When you witness this historical engagement in person at County Hall, it illuminates the importance of the project, and makes it impossible to not be positively impacted by it.

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