Spotlight on Research: Their Finest Hour

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The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 unveiled a tragic period in human history which largely came to define the world we live in today. For the United Kingdom, the British Commonwealth and the Empire, the conflict had a unique effect – the British people, assisted by volunteers from across the globe, came together in solidarity and served a common cause. Despite almost six years of privation, heart-wrenching destruction, suffering and loss, much of British society was resolutely committed to rendering a war effort until the unconditional surrender of both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945.

Over the past two decades, the United Kingdom has seen the gradual disappearance of that incredible wartime generation who fought so hard to preserve democracy and justice, and who laboured to bring peace and freedom to enemy-occupied nations. Along with the sad departure of our last remaining veterans is the loss of material heritage from the wartime era, as well as the stories of the lives associated with it – vital stories of national importance that tell us the collective human story of how Britain’s war against fascism was fought and won.

Their Finest Hour is a new and exciting digital humanities project by the Faculty of English at the University of Oxford. It aims to capture and digitally preserve the stories and material heritage from the Second World War, by reaching out to families and communities across the UK. Funded by a generous grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), the project will ‘crowdsource’ this valuable heritage and store it in a free online archive to be released to the public on the 80th anniversary of D-Day, 6th June, 2024.

Led by Dr Stuart Lee, who lectures in war poetry and digital humanities at the Faculty, the project builds on over twenty years of experience in crowdsourcing and digitally preserving family and community history, both nationally and internationally. Lee’s Oxford-based team will coordinate a nationwide project that will reach to the far corners of the United Kingdom. Building on professional experience gathered from previous digital crowdsourcing projects, including the NLHF-funded First World War Lest We Forget project which was jointly coordinated with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Dr Lee will coordinate a larger project to uncover, capture and preserve a ‘people’s history’ of the Second World War.

The aim of the project is to capture images of various types of material heritage from the wartime era, including objects, original photographs, documents, and diaries or letters of those who participated in the British and Allied war efforts, together with the stories behind these items and the people who owned them. It then moves to studying the narratives and commonalities behind this preserved communal heritage.

This will be accomplished through a combined approach: participants can upload their materials and stories from the comfort of their homes through a Direct Submissions portal on the project website, or they can attend one of more than 100 Collection Day events that are currently being planned throughout the UK.

These locally-based volunteer-run events are being hosted by libraries, archives, schools, local history societies and heritage associations in every region of the UK. These will be spearheaded by 15 larger flagship Collection Day events which will be held at major national and regional archives and cultural heritage institutions in London, Southern and South-Western England, the Midlands, the North of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The project is actively looking for volunteers to be trained in how to run their own event at a local level.

Ultimately, Their Finest Hour is designed to ensure that the many stories and artefacts that constitute Britain’s wartime heritage, but which are concealed in drawers or buried in garages and lofts, will now be uncovered, identified, recorded and safeguarded for the future. It will not only tap into the valuable family and community wartime heritage, but also the heritage of Britain’s ethnic minorities and their contribution to British and Allied victory in 1945.

As well as helping to preserve heritage for future generations, this project will engage with Britain’s collective understanding of the war and, in particular, the narrative of a ‘people’s war’. It will explore the common or widely held understandings of the war in contemporary times, and how ordinary people relate their experiences to what their forebearers witnessed in the course of the 1939-45 conflict.

If you'd like to get involved, you can contribute in different ways:

  • Attend one of the collection events to be organised throughout 2023 (details will be available on our website)
  • Make a small financial contribution to help buy equipment, train a volunteer, support an event (e.g. at a school), or pay for graduate internships via our Donate page
  • Help promote and spread the word about the project amongst friends and family by pointing them to our website below, or forwarding on our social media messages.

For further information about Their Finest Hour, including updates on forthcoming training and events, please visit You can also email and follow us on Facebook and Twitter (@ww2finesthour).