How to… explore the Forces War Records Historic Documents archive

Forces War Records recently hit the eight million mark for named military records held within the site, thanks wholly to our amazing Data Entry team and their recent hard work on the MH106 ‘Military Hospitals Admissions and Discharge Registers WWI’ collection. However, military records are not the only resource waiting to be discovered through the Forces War Records website. We also work incredibly hard to preserve and share contemporary newspapers, magazines, photographs, publications and diaries in our Historic Documents archive.

The archive started life as a pet project of the company, with members of staff selecting interesting resources which we could add to the website for additional flavour and background. These included a few copyright-free publications, including technical manuals such as ‘The Bren Light Machine Gun’, period magazines and newspapers, and official booklets such as ‘By Air to Battle: the Official Account of the British Airborne Divisions’. But it has expanded to encompass textbooks, original pictures, photo albums, military records and unique personal diaries such as ‘WWII Written Accounts by Troop Sgt Bernard Kaye, Royal Engineers’, which outlines one man’s experiences of Dunkirk, D-Day, Geilenkirchen, rafting on the Rhine and training in England.

Having grown to over 2,000 documents, you might imagine that the archive could be a bit of a pain to search through; in actual fact, it is not. We’ve built up a great deal of experience in refining the search engine for our eight million strong records database, so 2,000 documents? No problem!

While some of the documents in our Historic Documents archive are FREE for absolutely anyone to view, such as the various War Diaries contributed by members, the majority require at least a Basic Membership. So, it is advisable for you to either login or register before delving into our archive. Full Members have UNLIMITED ACCESS, again so long as they have logged in.

The Historic Documents archive homepage is laid out slightly differently to our normal records search system, but works in a similar way. At the top of the page you may find ‘Recommended Documents’, which will have been chosen for you based on your previous searches of the archive; consequently, you won’t see this option if this is your first visit.

On the left hand side of the page you will find a number of filter options that you can use before even typing in a search item. These will allow you to immediately get to the appropriate section of the library and start your search there. So, if you are looking for a Royal Navy personal diary, for example, you can click on the ‘War Diary’ filter to narrow your search in the first instance.

In the centre of the page is the ‘Search Now’ box, into which you can type a keyword or phrase to find relevant documents. If you wanted to see all of our documents on tanks of the Second World War, you could type in “Tanks WW2”. This will pull a list of every matching resource, including ‘The War History of the Sixth Tank battalion’ and relevant volumes of ‘World War II’ magazine.

The search also has the rather brilliant feature of highlighting pages which match your search keyword or phrase in the publications that come up. So for example in the ‘World War II, Volume 5’ the first pages shown are actually pages two and three, which deal with Operation Goodwood, the British Tank attack around Caen, France in July 1944. Then it skips to page 10, the German efforts to blunt Goodwood, deploying their Panzer Divisions and the beginnings of Operation Cobra. If you need or want to view the rest of the document, there is a button provided at the top of the viewing screen labelled, ‘Show all Pages’.

Below the search bar of the landing page for the Historic Documents section are two further columns of documents. To the left are ‘Recently Added’ documents and to the right are our most recent ‘Free War Diaries’. Simply clicking on one of these will take you to that document.

When viewing a document you have a number of controls that variously allow you to zoom in and out, bookmark pages, navigate pages and so on:

On the left of an open document you’ll first find the ‘Bookmark Page’ button, which does exactly what it says on the tin, allowing you to bookmark a particular page and return to it at a later time. Bookmarks are stored in ‘Your Profile’ under the ‘Manage your saved records, units, documents and eBooks’ button. Below the bookmark button, you’ll find an option to ‘Download/Buy’ this document as an eBook or pdf. Clicking this will present a pop-up with more information on the download process and even allow you to enter an appropriate discount code. Finally, below the pdf/eBook download button there is a ‘Your Comments’ section. This is specifically for your own research purposes, and cannot be seen by anyone else.

The centre of the document viewer is devoted to controls for the reader. These include: at the top left, page controls and a full screen button; top right, zoom controls, a magnification tool and a keyword search; centre right and centre left, arrows to move forward and backward one page; bottom right, duplicate page controls; and bottom left, duplicate zoom controls. The icons are very clearly marked, but if you put your mouse cursor over them and wait a couple of seconds, a small pop-up box will appear telling you what the button does.

You can also manipulate the document by placing your cursor on the page, clicking and dragging. This is most helpful when zoomed in, allowing you to move the document as you read.

When you are using the ‘Full Screen’ option, all of the aforementioned controls move to the top left of the screen, and a star is added for your bookmarking. These options in order from left to right are: page controls, previous page, next page, zoom out, zoom in, magnify, bookmark page, and exit full screen.

‘Magnify’, in both the normal document viewer and the full screen mode, works as if you were using a magnifying glass on a physical page. After clicking the button, if you put your mouse cursor over the document, you will notice it presents a small zoomed-in section of the page you are viewing. You can move this over particular items or objects, to get a better look at details in a picture, for example. Perhaps great grandad is in that picture of Paris on Liberation day? You won’t know until you check. Clicking the ‘magnify’ button again will turn this function off.

We hope you will enjoy working your way through the Historic Documents archive, there are some fabulous articles in there, with a couple of our favourites being the various personal war diaries and the ‘Photo album of Lieutenant James Chambers, Archangel/North Russian Relief Force’.

Browse the Forces War Records Archives

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