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Harry Raffal, a PhD candidate at the University of Hull, studies the online development of the Ministry of Defence and the British Army. Below, he discusses elements of this work, which will feature at a Web Archiving Week hosted by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and the British Library.

In 2014 I began looking at the online development of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the armed forces using the UK Web Archives. A particular area of interest in this project was how the British Army had integrated recruitment into its online presence.

The British Army’s website was analysed from an initial corpus of five archived iterations of the site. They were chosen on the basis that they covered the major developments of the site from 1996–2014. From this initial corpus a causal theory was created as to how the website had developed during this period which could then be tested on further iterations of, and through detailed searches.

This approach was adopted because, while using the UK Web Archive, I discovered that as long as I created a small detailed query, I could generate meaningful results. Slightly broader queries created a much larger number of results, which had to be selectively narrowed to the point where the data set was largely artificial as it was based on my selective choice of categories.

Archived iterations of the British Army’s website revealed that recruitment content was highly prominent, and navigational elements to the recruitment section were pronounced across the website. Content ostensibly covering one area was frequently designed to push users towards the site’s recruitment section, particularly in the case of information on training.

Analysis also revealed that the British Army had changed the language of recruitment. There was a significant change from stressing ‘career’ to ‘joining’ across the period, which has since culminated in the British Army 2017 recruitment campaign emphasising ‘belonging’.

Underneath these changes, analysis of the recruitment section and content created for it, captured in the UK Web Archive reveals that the underlying message of recruitment has remained fairly constant. ‘Seeing the world’, ‘skills’, ‘career’ and ‘joining’ all remain vital elements of the overall message as to the benefits of becoming a member of the British Army.

The analysis of the British Army’s online recruitment content suggested that over time, its recruitment became increasingly interactive. The ‘Start Think Soldier’ recruitment campaign of 2009 led to an increase in interactive elements and online digital games on the British Army website with users driven to the online content by an integrated media campaign. The 2008 redesign, led to video content in the equipment section, the style and content of which had a ‘pumped-up’ action movie feel, targeted to excite rather than inform. Video content within the corps and regiments section was also targeted at prospective recruits (Infantry Regiments, Scots Guards: British Army – Internet Archive, site captured 26 March 2013).

Testing this theory outside of the UK Web Archive, however, suggested that this did not represent a marked transformation in the British Army’s approach to recruitment but was merely an evolution and an embrace of new technology. Its 1990s ‘Be the Best’ TV commercials contained a strongly interactive element and changes over time have merely allowed them to make such elements easier to use.

By 1999 the site had an ‘Army Challenge’ exercise which enabled visitors to determine whether they had the right instincts to become an officer and led to an on-line application form with a significant proportion of officers recruited via this route.

Returning to iterations of the British Army website in the UK Web Archive it is possible to determine that the Army was an early adopter of social media and that it has consistently used this content for recruitment purposes. What has changed is the technology and capacity to perform this task, with blogs playing the main role in the 1990s while today it makes enthusiastic use of sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.

During all of this research perhaps the clearest indicator of the priority that the British Army places on recruitment in its online content can be found in the ‘site down’ message captured on 10 May 2000 that advised users where alternative sources of recruitment information could be found. ‘Army site temporarily unavailable. Normal service will resume shortly. In the meantime, if you are interested in army careers, please call for further information on 08457 300 111 or visit your local Army Careers Office. The address will be in the phone book under ‘Army’ (Site Down Holding Message: British Army – Internet Archive, site captured 10 May 2000).

The great fortune that the site down message from 10 May 2000 was captured shows that while the internet archive is inevitably an incomplete picture of the past, its great value lies in capturing unique versions which can starkly illustrate how websites have developed.

Harry Raffal is a PhD student at the University of Hull where, under the supervision of Dr David Omissi, he studied the role of the RAF and Luftwaffe during Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of the Dunkirk in 1940. He began researching the online development of the Ministry of Defence and British Armed Forces after receiving a bursary from the Institute for Historical Research as part of the 2014 ‘Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities’ project. He has presented several papers on his work including to the Royal Aeronautical Society, as part of the RAF Museums Trenchard lecture series, and has received research bursaries and educational grants from the Royal Historical Society, the Princess Royal Trust, the University of Hull and the Sir Richard Stapley Trust.