Neil Oliver, archaeologist, historian and author of the ‘Two Men in A Trench’ books, has written a second guest blog for Forces War Records on the difficulties of transcribing military records. Watch out for a third piece from Mr Oliver very soon!
The digital revolution, while not everyone’s cup of tea, has been a great boon to the genealogist. No longer does he or she have to spend days travelling around the country to visit archives in search of an ancestor’s records; no longer is it necessary to pay fees to several different organisations, since specialist websites bring together numerous collections in one location. More importantly, though, digitalisation is the only way to prevent records, sooner or later, from being lost. Paper records have great personality, and are wonderful to examine, smell and touch, since they give a palpable impression of age and heritage. However, despite the best efforts of worthy institutions such as The National Archives to protect them, at some point they will fade to the point where they can no longer be read; they will tear or crumble; they will darken due to spillages and wear. Once transcribed, the records they hold will no longer risk being erased or forgotten.
Unfortunately, transcribing them is not all that easy. Handwritten records are, by nature, individual, and therefore difficult to read and interpret, while styles of writing have evolved throughout history. Abbreviations, such as pet names for certain units, shortened forms of common ranks or varying titles for different regiments, crop up with astonishing regularity. There are also many incomplete or hastily drafted records. Imagine being in the field with the guns blazing, shrapnel raining down all around you, the screams of friend and foe alike whipping past you on the wind. You would likely scribble your notes in a rushed and haphazard manner too! Many of the soldiers giving their details sported heavy accents, unusual names or facial injuries which muffled their speech, so that, even when records were noted carefully and neatly, they often contained mistakes. Finally, the sheer volume of existing military records is mind-boggling. The National Archives is packed to the rafters with document after document denoting the registers of all sorts of departments, bodies and regiments, and even the smaller collections tend to contain several million names.
Luckily, specialist organisations like Forces War Records are doing their bit to help preserve not only more widely available collections, such as the records held by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but those requiring specialist knowledge to interpret or that many genealogy companies would consider too limited or meagre to be worth the effort of transcribing. Since their archive contains 7 million records there are lots of opportunities to cross-reference the contents of different registers, so spot and iron out errors, and the organisation has expert historians and researchers on hand to explain the meaning of abbreviations, interpret military or medical jargon and accurately decipher scribbled or faded text. Moreover, since their Data Entry Team is 40-strong, Forces War Records is well on the way to making a dent in that colossal mountain of records wasting away in the National Archives, just waiting to be mined for information.