At Forces War Records we are lucky enough to have a 40-strong team of dedicated Data Entry Operators to transcribe historical records, which is why we now have 6 million of them in our database. However, they can’t just look at a military record and copy it; first they have to figure out what the text says, and what it means – something that is easier said than done at times!
Take MH106, “War Office: First World War Representative Medical Records of Servicemen”, for instance. The 1.5 million admission and discharge records that make up this collection, which are stored at the National Archives, are handwritten and absolutely littered with medical and military jargon and abbreviations. Although available to search through, the original documents are very hard to glean any useful information from, as they are organised by medical unit rather than last name, and those whose relatives were injured rarely know exactly where they were treated. Even if they did, the collection is not indexed, so they’d have to wade through volume after volume to find the right unit, and page after page to discover their ancestor’s name. So how did our experts go about sorting through this mass of data and neatly indexing it?
To start with, they had to be able to read it. The records were scrawled in all sorts of styles of hand writing, often hurriedly in the midst of battle and in pencil, which in many cases had faded. As well, Indian surnames in particular, or those of people with facial injuries who couldn’t communicate properly, were often misspelled. However, we have on our team Data Standards Officer Rachel Cope, an expert at interpreting handwritten documents of this period. Rachel put together a PowerPoint presentation to train our Data Entry Operators to decipher handwriting, which outlined standard letter formations and typical stylised additions to letter shapes, as well as practice sheets to work on before starting to input the records themselves. She is always on-hand, with years of experience under her belt, to help out anyone coming up against a particularly difficult record, one with faded writing, water damage or hurried or overlapping entries that have strayed into the wrong column of the register.
Another difficulty with this particular collection is the amount of medical jargon included in it, not to mention the anatomical references and abbreviations (varying from page to page, scribe to scribe). This is where another of our Data Standards Officers, Naomi Stevens, came into play. Naomi is a qualified veterinary nurse, well versed in medical terminology as well as the history of medicine, and worked hard to put together a list of common illnesses, injuries, body parts and abbreviations (such as PUO for ‘pyrexia of unknown origin’, or fever) for the use of the team. When she came across conditions or terms not so often seen in modern practice, she did her research to make sense of them – for example, the use of Roman numerals to grade gunshot wounds – and ensure others knew how to interpret them. Explanations and descriptions of abbreviations have been included in the final records, for ease of use by researchers, and original sources displayed when we have been unable to interpret them.
Meanwhile, Francis Wright, whose father is a senior serving officer with the British Embassy in Paris and who completed preliminary officer training, was responsible for creating guidelines to help the Data Entry Operators to interpret military jargon and abbreviations. Usually, the most difficult part is working out which unit men belong to, though sometimes the rank also presents a problem. The names of regiments and corps changed many times throughout the war, and the soldiers often had their own slang – for example, Mobile Veterinary Section is part of the Army Veterinary Corps, while the Pom Pom Section is part of the Royal Garrison Artillery. Francis has therefore compiled a comprehensive list of regiments for site users. Where possible, incomplete records are cross-checked against other sources, such as our own ‘Soldiers Who Died in the Great War’ collection, to fill in missing details and check accuracy, and abbreviations are explained (e.g. ‘F Bakey’ means Field Bakery, or ‘RNDMU1FA63’ can be broken to reveal the soldier was in Royal Naval Division, Medical Unit, 1st Royal Naval Field Ambulance).
All records transcribed are checked multiple times, to ensure that the data is as accurate as possible; any new information that comes to light is taken into account to update the back-catalogue of records, again helping to improve accuracy. Thus, thanks to the efforts of all our talented Data Standards Officers and the hard work of our Data Entry Operators, 40,000 records from the 51st Field Ambulance have already been transcribed, and records from the 139th and 14th Field Ambulances, which respectively served the 41st and 5th Divisions, are now appearing bit by bit. In the next two or three years, we hope all 1.5 million records will be available for our site users to search with ease. The records are indexed on our site by patient name, making them extremely easy to navigate, unlike the original collection. Why not search for your relative today?