Archivist stunned after unearthing family's WWI history

Library and Archives digital imaging specialist Timothy Shawn Hack uncovered documents from his two great-grandfathers who fought on opposite sides during the First World War.

'I remember just staring at my screen for, like, 5 minutes'

A photo of Richard Morley Bird, Tim Shawn Hack's great-grandfather. (Deborah MacAskill/CBC)

When Timothy Shawn Hack was a child, he remembers escaping the boring adults upstairs and heading to the basement of his grandparents' house to have some fun. 

It was down there that he first noticed the framed pictures of Richard Morley Bird, who looked to him more like a "mythical figure" than his maternal great-grandfather. But it wasn't until 2013 that he began to learn more about his family's past while digitizing old records at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, where he works. 

Library and Archives is digitizing the files of all Canadian soldiers who served in the First World War in time for Remembrance Day next year — the centenary of the armistice.

Hack, a digital imaging specialist, dug up his great-grandfather's file and digitized it. 

It was a simple, administrative document but it later led him to uncover a more telling one — the war diary belonging to his great-grandfather's unit.

'That was my eye-opening moment'

"Even though, obviously, I knew that he survived, just going through it and I remember this one point in the war diary I got to this line where there was an accidental fire in one of the dugouts and 11 men in the unit were killed. I remember that night, it was late at night, I was gripped by the war diary, I just couldn't go to sleep," he said in an interview with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. 

"And I remember just staring at my screen for, like, five minutes and I was almost stunned thinking, 'Wow, so easily that could have been my great-grandfather who would have been in that dugout and just unfortunately died that quickly.' That was my eye-opening moment."

Library and Archives digital imaging specialist Timothy Shawn Hack uncovered this attestation paper signed by his great-grandfather, Richard Morley Bird, during the FIrst World War. (Deborah MacAskill/CBC)

Other great-grandfather fought with Germans

His inquisitive search into his family while at work also turned up another discovery. 

He had another great-grandfather, Jakob Hack, who fought on the opposing side, with the German forces. After two years of roadblocks in his search to find out which unit he was in, Hack came across a website that described a botched attack launched by the German troops which blew poisoned air back towards themselves when the wind changed. 

A light went on in Hack's head when he recalled that his uncle had told him years ago that his paternal great-grandfather suffered from gas inhalation during the war. 

Documents digitized in the British archives eventually pointed Hack in the right direction about him, he said. He remembered getting an email from the British archives saying the file was ready for him to look at. 

Tim Shawn Hack also found this old photo of his paternal great-grandfather, Jakob Hack , who fought for the German forces in the First World War. (Deborah MacAskill/CBC)

"Getting ready to open it my heart was pounding," Hack said.

"This was two-plus years of sometimes really tedious research and dead ends and I was about to find something that was either telling me I was on the right track or completely throw my research up and I'm basically at square one again."

Jakob Hack lived until 76, when he was tragically killed in a car crash. Hack said the crash "haunted" his grandparents because they had always wanted to sit down with him and interview him about the war. 

"And I believe in [my grandfather's] memoirs he said, 'I paid for my procrastination,'" Hack recalled. 

"So that kind of motivates me, what gives me energy, to keep going. And even when I was at some tough points in my research was this thought I was doing this for my grandparents.

This is for them. This is not necessarily for me."

Hack also made a trip to France and Belgium to visit some of the battlefields where both his great-grandfathers fought. His audio-diary has been made into a podcast which has been posted on the Library and Archives website.

With files from CBC Radio