On Monday 3rd December 2012, Dr Hope Wolf (King’s College London) gave a paper entitled
War Stories: Life Writing, Letters, and the Imperial War Museum’s Archive of the 1964 BBC Series, The Great War.
A First World War veteran has survived the Second World War and knows of the devastation nuclear war can inflict. He hears that the BBC, wanting to make a half-centenary documentary series, is asking for memories of 1914-18. He sends a letter, comprising his most vivid remembrances. He doesn’t receive a reply. Fifty years after ‘The Great War’ series was first broadcast, one hundred years after the First World War, his words are finally taken out of the archive.
This paper will reflect upon my experiences of reading, and writing about, texts in this unusual Imperial War Museum archive: around 15,000 letters, all written between 1963-4. What is a researcher, equipped with literary theory and life writing methodologies, to do with a historical collection such as this? My answer to this question will be set within the context of a more general critique of the ways in which remembrances of war, and the life stories of so-called ‘ordinary’ people, are archived and interpreted.