Files of WWI soldiers now searchable online

 

With less than a year to go until the launch of numerous ceremonies and events marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I (1914-18), the Belgian Royal Army Museum (MRA) has stepped up its preparations. As of Wednesday, it has made available online (www.klm-mra.be) an extensive database containing the personal files of over 250,000 Belgian soldiers. The database currently features officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers born between 1845 and 1888 (including those that took part in the “Great War”) and whose names begin with the letters A to I and T to Z. In the coming weeks the remaining letters will also be added.

 

“We expedited this online launch because we were pressed for time,” explains Dominique Hanson, general manager of the MRA. “The upcoming World War I commemorations have led to a big rise in inquiries. They come from abroad and from within Belgium. Historical societies, individuals and genealogists are increasingly commonplace in our reading room.” The MRA is renowned worldwide for its First World War collections. It boasts 40,000 photographic glass plates (versus between 5,000 and 6,000 in the Musée des Invalides in Paris) and nitrate films, which are due to be digitized. “But the Museum has become a victim of its own success,” points out Hanson. “Our reading room only holds 30 people, so putting our database online will enable us to look up files more quickly when we make it possible for requests to be made in advance.”

 

“Physical” files will still be accessible via the reading room. In practical terms people using the database will be able to search by last names, first names, dates of birth and military regiments. “The digitalization of these often very bulky physical files is also something that we’re looking at. But there are currently higher priorities in terms of getting material on the Internet. Placing online individual files, some of which will only be of interest to one person, is perhaps a little irrational.”

 

“Trench maps”

The MRA, whose premises have recently benefitted from the installation of a new fiber optic high-speed broadband line, has established a partnership with the Belgian National Geographic Institute (IGN) with the objective of digitalizing and putting online maps dating from the First World War, commonly known as “trench maps”. The MRA possesses a collection of 25,000 documents including German maps.

 

The Museum is now entering the final stages of its WWI commemoration plans. The renovation of the 1,200 m2 exhibition hall earmarked for staging tributes will soon be complete. It will host an exhibition entitled “14-18, c’est notre histoire” [“World War I: it’s our history”] “But we need to make sure the budget is there. We’re all aware of the financial restrictions being imposed at the moment,” says Hanson, adding sensibly, “The First World War centennial can only take place in 2014, after all.”

M.M.

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