Transcribing Digitized First World War Diaries by Stevie Docherty

In an earlier post, Andrew Hoskins raises the question of whether we are losing particular histories of warfare through processes of digitization, which also have profound implications for the way we can read and touch these histories. This question also underlies the following reflections on the experience of transcribing a digitized corpus of unit war diaries from the First World War.

‘Transcription’ is perhaps best understood in this context as ‘a translation between forms of data’ (UK Data Archive) [i]. In the course of translation, we are also augmenting the text by adding tags and markers which we can later use for analytical purposes, creating an entirely different digital version of the diaries. We want to analyse the content of the diaries– the text inscribed within them – in order to find out more about changes in the nature of warfare over the past century, and in the Army’s organizational memories of warfare. The First World War diaries discussed in this post are actually part of a larger corpus we are examining, including diaries from the Second World War as well as the Falklands War. This contributes to the AHRC Research Fellowship – ‘Technologies of Memory: War Diaries Before and After the Connective Turn’ and my work with Andrew Hoskins and Debra Ramsay.

The WW1 diary corpus consists of scanned PDF files of official unit operational diaries and appendices, a day-by-day institutional record of events on the ground. The Army’s intention in keeping such records was twofold: first, to ensure there was an accurate record on which to base official history, and second, to help create a bank of practical information which the Army could draw on in future operations. [ii] The files which make up our corpus cover only a small fraction of the complete set of unit diaries from the First World War. The files we are using were created as part of a major digitization project by The National Archives (TNA) – the digitization and release of the WO 95 record series, marking the centenary of the war (a project previously discussed here by Debra Ramsay).

Six different regiments are represented in our corpus: Cheshire, North Staffordshire, South Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Notts and Derby (Sherwood Foresters), and the Welsh Guards. Within the files, there are