World War One Volunteer Aid Detachment Project
Our most recent large project was probably our most ambitious. The Centre for the Historical Record (CHR) teamed up with the British Red Cross (BRC) to produce a database of 250,000 volunteers who worked for the BRC during the first world war. It was a massive undertaking, involving the transcription of one quarter of a million 5×3 index cards (front and back), which hold information on individuals who signed up to help with the war effort, providing a wide range of services from nursing and ambulance driving in the theatre of war, to knitting socks and blankets back at home. The work was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).
THE HLF funding was worth £40,000 in total and was provided to enable the digitisation of information relating to the VADs, which included names, locations and types of work undertaken. The CHR’s role was to create a database of this fascinating collection. The BRC came to us because of our reputation for carrying out similar projects for other organisations (such as Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and King’s College Archive), and our commitment to making historical records accessible to as wide an audience as possible, with no pay-wall barriers. As with our other digitising projects, this project also relied on the contributions of volunteer transcribers, working mainly online, to produce the database. Our existing team of local volunteers, who have worked with us on projects over the last ten years or so, again, of course, also worked on the project.
We started the transcription process in July 2014, using a great website specially designed for the job by our long-term web consultant Oliver Cope and colleague Juliet Warren. We have signed up over 250 volunteers, who, by the end of August, had already transcribed 24,000 cards. Our target was to complete the process by December 2015. A tough target, but we were confident it could be done.
The database, which was released in stages via the British Red Cross website, provides amazing insight into the contribution of non-combatants to the British war effort. As a large proportion of volunteers were women it particularly reveals the significant contribution women made to the war effort both at home and in the field of battle. The collection contains details of some famous VADs, such as Vera Brittain, novelist and poet, Naomi Mitchison and most famous of all, Agatha Christie. But of more importance, arguably, is the detail it has revealed of the contributions of less famous VADs; ordinary citizens who just wanted to make their contribution to the war effort.