11/11/2012 06:54 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 10:53 EST

McGill Remembers brings digital light to the dark years of war

For years, one man clipped every article, stored every letter and carefully transcribed every promotion, every victory and every heartbreaking loss that touched the McGill University community during the Second World War.

The man, R. C. Fetherstonhaugh, took on the task as an additional duty in the McGill War Records Office.

In 1945, the gunfire ceased, and those left started moving on with their lives. A year later, Fetherstonhaugh died, and the records were carefully packed away – a relic of another time.

Now, after collecting dust for more than 60 years, those snapshots of the war years of 6,000 McGill graduates, professors and staff are once again ready to see the light of day.

"It's a tremendous slice of the lives of 6,000 people," said Wes Cross, founder of the McGill Remembers project.

"There's a real pathos to this story . . . It's 6,000 individual stories from kind of a lost era."

The records were never really forgotten, but no one knew what to do with them, Cross explained.

Volunteers took on the task. For the past seven years, they have been working to scan all those cards and letters and photos to preserve and share them digitally.

Of those 6,000 people captured in the records, 298 never came home from the front. Another 52 were captured as prisoners of war. Nearly 300 of them were women.

For the most part, the veterans and volunteers whose lives were being meticulously chronicled by the McGill War Office didn't even know their alma mater was keeping tabs on them, according to Cross.

"What we find is interest in the military is often about the big battles, and who got the medals," Cross said.

"This is 6,000 people who were just ordinary people who just happened to go to McGill. Some had low-level jobs. They were clerks. Not everybody was a hero."

Since starting the project, Cross and the volunteers have reached out to the families and the veterans themselves for more information or to tell them about the records.

Many were simply stunned that McGill kept records of even the most seemingly small roles some of them played during the war.

While there are many websites now trying to capture the fading stories of one of the greatest generations, Cross believes this project is different and hopes it will inspire other universities to go back into their own records to see what can be found.

"It's untainted by interpretation," he said. "It's pretty much a raw resource of history. Who knew a university would spend so much effort tracking individuals?"