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Kingston University's Centre for the Historical Record helps reveal stories behind Red Cross volunteering during First World War in new digital archive

Posted Wednesday 5 November 2014

One hundred years ago, the Red Cross and the Order of St John joined forces to care for sick and wounded soldiers as the WW1 Joint War Committee. To mark this milestone, the Red Cross has worked with Kingston University's Centre for the Historical Record to create a unique online archive that will make nearly a quarter of a million records of WW1 volunteers readily available for the first time.

Photo credit: British Red Cross Museum and Archives1st Eastern General Hospital, Cambridge - British Red Cross Museum and Archives

Nursing dying soldiers, driving ambulances through the trenches and searching for the missing are just some of the ways in which British Red Cross voluntary aid detachments (VADs) helped to care for the sick and wounded on the home front and overseas. The new digital archive, created with Dr Sue Hawkins and Dr Helen Goepel at the Centre for the Historical Record, located in Kingston University's School of Economics, History and Politics, is unearthing new information about these civilians who contributed so much to the war effort.

"The ethos of volunteering resonates throughout this project," says Dr Hawkins. "From the men, women and children who cooked and cleaned for the war effort all those years ago, who nursed and drove ambulances; to our amazing band of modern-day volunteers, who give up their time to make this tremendous resource available to the world.
"The information they are recording is truly wonderful in its detail - from collectors of the sphagnum moss used to dress wounds, to the parish hall knitting circles, a new picture of early 20th century British community is being constructed."

The archive draws on a collection of 236,000 personnel index cards held by the Red Cross. The cards include volunteers' names and details such as where they worked and what tasks they did and provide an irreplaceable source of historical information.

Jemma Lee, archivist at the Red Cross says: "People regularly contact us saying that they know a relative worked for the Red Cross during the war but they have no idea what they did - the first place we look for further information are these cards, which, for example, can tell us whether an individual worked as a pharmacist, laundrette, ambulance driver or nurse. By digitising these records we are making them instantaneously accessible for the first time, as well as preserving them for years to come."
The Kingston University team has recruited more than 300 volunteers to work on the Red Cross archive project and they transcribe nearly 500 of these cards a day online.

Photo credit: British Red Cross Museum and ArchivesSelkirk/2 Detachment with ambulance - British Red Cross Museum and Archives

"Our volunteers are the backbone of our project," says Dr Hawkins. "They give up their spare time and, in some cases, a huge number of hours each week to help us. Many are family historians and are going ‘off-piste' to research interesting individuals they come across, and we are encouraging them to do so. I hope that what they discover will be useful in gaining a more detailed understanding of the types of people who volunteered for the war effort."

A total of 90,000 civilians served as Joint War Committee VADs during the war. Volunteers included everyone from wealthy young ladies to authors Agatha Christie, E.M. Forster and Vera Brittain, who wrote of her work as a Red Cross nurse in Testament of Youth.

The archive is available to the public free of charge on the Red Cross website and can be searched by relatives of VADs and historians alike. It currently only includes records for names A-B; more will be added each month as the transcription project proceeds. The project has been funded by a £80,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

• Find out more about the Centre for the Historical Record at Kingston University.
• Find out about studying History BA (hons) at Kingston University.