First World War medical records revealed online for the first time

By Jon Bauckham, 9 October 2014 - 11:41am

► New Forces War Records release contains files created by 51st Field Ambulance
Transcriptions show rank, regiment and movements between hospitals
► Analysis of records reveals variety of ailments on front line, including venereal diseases

 Wounded soldiers in hospital beds

The Forces War Records release contains information from files kept by the 51st Field Ambulance between 1915-18, previously only available at The National Archives

Medical records of soldiers who served during the First World War have been made available online for the first time.

Military genealogy website Forces War Records has released 30,000 records created by the 51st Field Ambulance between 1915-18, providing details of men treated on the front line and the nature of their ailments.

Held in series MH106 at The National Archives, the pages were photographed at Kew and transcribed by a team of staff at Forces War Records’ headquarters in Melksham, Wiltshire.

Due to the fact that many of the pages have been damaged or written in pencil that has since faded, specialists with a grasp of military and medical terminology were also required to help interpret the records and ensure they were read correctly.

Phil Cooper, technical director at Forces War Records, said that the set has largely been ignored in the past due to the way it is organised.

“Because there’s no index, you don’t know who is mentioned unless you are already certain a soldier was wounded or ill and in a particular place at a particular time,” he told Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

“You could end up spending weeks looking for something that might not even be there.”

WW1 medical record from MH160 from The National Archives

The Admission and Discharge Books provide details of each soldier's rank, regiment, treatment and their movements to and from different hospitals

Although the vast majority of hospital records were destroyed after the war, the surviving documents – around 2 per cent of the total – could be the only indication that a forebear who survived the conflict actually served.

However, they also provide an insight into the types of injuries and diseases soldiers faced in the trenches.

Analysis of records transcribed so far shows that the most common problem was pyrexia (fever), followed by maladies including trench foot, scabies and diarrhoea.

On ‘quiet’ days on the front line, more minor problems were treated such as tooth decay and even broken dentures.

But perhaps most shocking for family historians tracing their forebears is that the documents disclose details of men who were afflicted with venereal diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis – presumably caught after visiting local brothels.

Phil Cooper is technical director at Forces War Records in Melksham, Wiltshire

Phil Cooper and colleagues spent several months digitising and transcribing the records, made difficult by the fact that many were written in pencil that has since faded

Mr Cooper said he was also interested to discover how the brutality of the conflict affected the soldiers’ mental health.

“I found the early mentions of shell shock quite surprising,” he said.

“I was under the impression that it was not recognised until well after the war had ended, but no, way back in 1915 they were writing it down as a legitimate condition.”

While the entries in the first tranche relate to around 25,000 separate names, further batches will be uploaded as the team continues to work its way through MH106.

This means that records created by other field ambulances and casualty clearing stations could soon be revealed.

Military expert Phil Tomaselli said he was “delighted” to see the first transcriptions on the web.

“I know a terrific amount of work has been done and remains to be done in getting all the potential information off the pages but, with the loss of so many First World War records, it could be crucial to an awful lot of people in pinning down part of their ancestor’s story.”

All images courtesy of Forces War Records

Take it further

► Explore the collection at (requires subscription)
► Forces War Records has also created a free eBook to accompany the collection named Trench Traumas and Medical Miracles – read it here


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