There has been a lot of excitement, both in the national and genealogy press, about the release of the first 30,000 51st Field Ambulance records from our larger collection of 1.5 million military hospital admission and discharge registers. TV’s Neil Oliver has spoken about his excitement at the prospect of gaining an insight into the daily life in the trenches by studying the common ailments and afflictions, while military expert Phil Tomaselli told ‘Who Do You Think You Are Magazine’, “With the loss of so many First World War records, (the collection) could be crucial to an awful lot of people in pinning down part of their ancestor’s story.” So, if these records are so valuable, why has nobody transcribed them before?
Quite simply, the task is not an easy one, and 1.5 million is a lot of records . It has taken Forces War Records’ 50-strong data entry team three or four months to transcribe this first tranche of records alone, as there was a lot of groundwork to be laid before the data compilation could begin. First, all the pages from the original log books had to be photographed at the National Archives and sent through to our office in Melksham, Wiltshire, for interpretation- a very difficult task.
The records are hard to read as they were hand-written by busy clerks in the field, who didn’t have a lot of time in between attacks and floods of patients to ensure that their notes were tidy. The handwriting is old, with the same word or even the same letter written by two different people looking very different, and since pencils were used to make them the notes have faded over the years. Our handwriting experts had a very difficult job to make out the different surnames, and all of them had to be checked multiple times to ensure they were correct, with questionable ones sometimes being cross-referenced with several different historic registers. Sometimes the clerks misheard a name in the din of battle, or spelt it as they imagined it should be rather than asking for the correct spelling; other times, the patient giving the name simply couldn’t be properly understood due to serious facial injuries.
Even when the names were clear, the units or conditions sometimes weren’t. Specialist military knowledge was required to interpret often inconsistent slang names or abbreviations for different regiments, e.g. RE for Royal Engineers, Duke of Wellington as a pet-name for West Riding Regiment, or Pom Pom Section as part of the Royal Garrison Artillery. Specialist knowledge was also needed to interpret many of the medical abbreviations, e.g. NYD for ‘not yet diagnosed’ or GSW/B ‘gunshot wound to the buttocks’. Only once guidelines to help the Data Entry Officers with their interpretation were produced and road-tested could the work of transcribing finally begin.
Since the collection is relatively small and difficult to interpret, Forces War Records is the first company to transcribe it. The original records are very hard to use as they are classed by RAMC unit rather than by name, so unless you knew your ancestor had been treated in a particular facility on a particular date, you would probably be unable to find him. Since our records are indexed by name and service number, we’re making the collection much easier to search. Now that the groundwork has been done we’re able to move much faster with the transcription too, so we are expecting to have the full 1.5 million records transcribed for searching within the next two or three years.
It is an important collection because, with many Great War records destroyed by the government or lost in the bombing of the Second World War, in some cases there may be no other trace of a man who served in the war and was injured, but survived. It is also quite rare to find notes on a soldier’s religion, which were collected in case Last Rites were required. Why not search for your ancestor today and see what you can find?