A research project that initially tied in with the 100th anniversary of the tragic Battle of Beaumont-Hamel has since blossomed into a massive online database. It chronicles Harbour Grace's many contributions to the First World War.
The Conception Bay Museum recently launched an addition to its website with more than 250 profiles of soldiers from the Harbour Grace area who served in what's also known as the Great War. The database includes photos, in some cases, along with copies of war-time documents users can easily scroll through or download. There are photos of headstones for those buried in Newfoundland and Labrador or honoured overseas in France. Interactive online maps display the cemetery locations.
The project got rolling through the initiative of Anne Gosse, who worked on compiling a list of locals who served in the war. Her effort coincided with the 100th anniversary of the infamous July 1, 1916 battle that nearly wiped out the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
"I started to research my own family and who served," explained Gosse, who has family roots in Wesleyville and Elliston. That exercise got her thinking about Harbour Grace's own ties to the war effort. After making several trips to The Rooms in St. John's to search through the Provincial Archives, Gosse was able to compile a list in spreadsheet form that detailed the basic information on those with ties to the Harbour Grace area. The names of those who served included people with links to Canadian, American and Australian units. She then got in touch with Patrick Collins, who chairs the museum board of directors.
"I said, 'Would the museum be interested in this?' And Pat said, 'Oh my gosh, yes,'" recalled Gosse, who is now a member of the museum's board.
She prepared some displays for a 2016 exhibit about the war and how people from Harbour Grace got involved. The following year, Matthew McCarthy was hired as the museum's co-ordinator for the summer and worked on setting up a website. McCarthy, who went on to become the municipality's economic development officer, later raised with Gosse the idea of establishing an online database.
"I was always interested in the digital way you could tell stories and that here," he said. "There was obviously stuff on social media, but there was never a permanent place for people to go. Anyone using Facebook, you can search for a post that's about three years old and it would take you forever to scroll through the whole page."
At first, Gosse's original spreadsheet was uploaded to both the museum's website and the Town of Harbour Grace's official page. After Gosse told him there was a lot more information out there that could be shared, McCarthy started thinking about a more interactive way to recognize the locals who served in the war.
"I would almost say some of it's better than The Rooms (online), because some of The Rooms stuff doesn't have their pictures there for instance. Anne has a lot of tidbits you probably wouldn't find on a normal kind of profile."
Those extra bits of information are sourced from old publications such as the Harbour Grace Standard. Gosse had created a physical file for each soldier with information that went well beyond what was presented in the spreadsheet.
McCarthy did a lot of the work early on and received a big boost from Town of Harbour Grace summer students Katelyn Galway and Jennifer Pike. Working together out of the Gordon G. Pike Railway Museum, Galway and Pike uploaded the research to the website. McCarthy said they were greatly aided by the Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador through the loan of an expensive flatbed scanner.
"I'm a history minor at MUN, and World War I is what I'm interested in, so it ended up being a real cool coincidence for me just getting to see not only World War I soldiers from Canada or Newfoundland, but ones from my actual towns," said Galway. "Seeing last names for example (where) I know people with the same last name and I'll go, 'Oh, that's probably their ancestor or great-grandfather.'"
Pike visited the Beaumont-Hamel site in France as part of a group, and remembers seeing the headstone belonging to a soldier named Edward she later created a profile for.
"It was cool to match them up — I saw the actual graves over there, and I was logging them on the website."
Collins expects the new online resource will be useful to young people interested in learning about locals who served in the First World War.
"It's a dream come true," he said. "Please God that kind of thing will continue and we'll have more things revealed about our heritage and culture through our museum."
He's quick to credit Gosse, McCarthy, and the summer students for their great work on the project. Collins was also effusive in thanking the town for its help in seeing it through to the end.
There is great potential for further digital projects. McCarthy suggests there's a wealth of material to work with when it comes to Harbour Grace's aviation history. He also notes there are substantial funding opportunities to explore community stories through the Virtual Museum of Canada, which is a federally-funded investment program devoted to digital storytelling.
"The stories here, there's just no doubt that there's so much potential in how you can tell those stories," McCarthy said.
Anyone wishing to contribute further information to the project can do so by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.