10 Nov 2011

Real-time WWII Twitter feed will create ‘living memory’

A Twitter account is reporting the events of world war two as it happened, minute by minute, for the next six years. Channel 4 News talks to the Oxford graduate behind @RealTimeWWII.

With political tension high in Europe this week, the Twittersphere might have been alarmed by a certain tweet this morning: “The Dutch army has cancelled all leave and stationed troops along the edges of flooded regions in preparation for a German attack.”

Thankfully, it is one of a series of tweets tracking the autumn of 1939 as German forces sweep across Europe following the invasion of Poland at the end of August.

The Twitter account @RealTimeWWII is tweeting the events of World War II over the next six years as and when it happened in real time, 72 years ago.

The brain child of 24-year-old Alwyn Collinson, @RealTimeWWII has accumulated a staggering 73,000-plus followers and is being translated into Russian, Portuguese and Spanish.

“It’s to give that feeling of ‘this might be happening right now, to me’,” Mr Collinson told Channel 4 News. “It’s about us avoiding the trap of hindsight, because at the time, it wasn’t like that and there was incredible fear and uncertainty.

“It’s easy to forget that, because we know what’s going to happen – that the good guys win.”

Churchill (getty)

First-person accounts

As well as a timeline reporting what happened and when, Mr Collinson links to media cuttings and uses first-person accounts to tell stories. At the time of the Siege of Warsaw on 28 and 29 September for example, he tweeted excerpts from a nurse’s acount of what was happening.

Telling personal stories is a big part of the project. “It’s something that has been forgotten about simply because the scale of the war was so huge, but it mattered hugely at the time,” said Mr Collinson. “Everyone has a connection, whether they know if or not.”

And Twitter’s micro-blogging platform has proven a very popular medium communicate these different voices on a minute-by-minute basis.

A ‘living memory’

The inspiration for the Twitter feed comes from a love of history – Mr Collinson studied history at Oxford University – but he denies the timeline is trying to be high-brow.

“I don’t think I’d make a good academic. I think my former professors would be very disappointed to hear I’m using Twitter,” he told Channel 4 News. “I’m not pretending to give a brilliant history lesson. I really want to engage people with this, and look at the war with fresh eyes, and create something that is a living memory.”

Historical tweeters

@CivilianWartime – Tweets from the Civil War home front in North Carolina.
@SamuelPepys – An account tweeting excerpts from Samuel Pepys’ famous diaries from 1668.
@PresidentAdams – Former US president John Adams tweets on the modern day from the C18th.
@CryForByzantium – Tweets from all 1,123 years of Byzantine history.
@JQAdams_MHS – Excerpts from diaries of former US President John Quincy Adams who died in 1848.

You might expect a six year project to require some epic forward planning. But in fact, Mr Collinson came up with the idea at the end of August and started tweeting a few days later, just in time for the German invasion of Poland. “It was hectic at first, but I’ve got into a routine now – a few hours before and after work,” he added.

The Twitter application Social Oomph allows the 24-year-old to schedule tweets in advance, to avoid any sleepless nights.

By the time VE Day arrives, Mr Collinson will be 30 and his life will undoubtedly have changed. But because of the huge amount of interest, he is committed to keeping going, not matter what happens.

“I would like people to use my Twitter feed as a jumping off point,” he added. “It’s not the end, but the beginning.”