Transcriptions Reveal Life in the Trenches

If you are familiar with our Citizen Archivist program, you know that we encourage online volunteers to transcribe digitized historical records held in the National Archives Catalog. We often say that these transcriptions help unlock history by improving search results, readability, and access to historical records.

So how exactly are your contributions unlocking history? A recent project involving World War I Division Records shows how the transcriptions added to our Catalog provide insight into the firsthand experience of soldiers who served in the war.

Handwritten World War I Division Report
Mobley C. Cpl. 132nd M.G. Bn. 36th Division 1918, 236.33.61. National Archives Identifier 77417876

As part of our World War I commemoration, we invited Citizen Archivists to help transcribe Tales from the Trenches: written accounts of World War I soldiers containing remarkable and moving accounts of war through unit histories, station lists, operations reports, and messages.

Over the course of this project, more than 6,650 pages of records were transcribed by our citizen volunteers! With so much material transcribed, we are excited to share how you can now search within these records to identify themes and subjects among the soldier’s experiences.

By performing a “search within” these records in the Catalog, you can search for events, battlefield conditions, or even emotions that soldiers describe in their accounts.

For example, the word “artillery” can be found in 608 records in this series.

“About 4 PM we moved forward to canal under heavy artillery and machine gun fire. Were relieved next morning.”
National Archives Identifier 77424758. Transcribed by citizen archivist Ndlund

The word “shelling” can be found in 1,632 records.

“We were all laying on top of the ground by a small railroad, when Captain Towey gave orders to move forward. We gathered our equipment and started, did not go far till the Captain got shot. The rest kept on going.  Lt. Hudson took charge we advanced to a cluster of trees took shelling for five minutes then advanced further it was there where the Bash gave us Hell.“
National Archives Identifier 77416855. Transcribed by citizen archivist Trumanvol

The word “afraid” can be found in 27 records.

Example of World War I report

I was afraid that we would never reach our objective with one man alive but we only had 4  killed and two wounded all it takes is nerve”
National Archives Identifier 77427373. Transcribed by citizen archivist LibrarianDiva

As we search within the completed transcriptions, we continue to be moved by soldier’s descriptions of the battlefield and of war. These accounts can also be useful for historians, students, and others who are interested in firsthand evidence of the experiences of World War I soldiers.

What other ideas or conditions do you think soldiers wrote about in their accounts of war? Try searching for it in the Catalog! Here’s how to search within a series:

From the Details section of the series description in the Catalog, click on the blue box: “Search within this series”

Screenshot showing where to search within this series

Next, in the top left search box, enter the word you would like to search. If you see any wildcard symbols *.* be sure to remove them before you enter your search term. For example, you could remove the wildcard symbols, and search for the word “trench”:

Click on the magnifying glass or press “enter” on your keyboard to start your search. See your results!

Give it a try, and let us know what you find within these records! You could try searching for “trench,” or “Verdun,”  or even “pigeon.” Have you discovered something interesting or unexpected? How else could you use this feature in you research?

You too can be a Citizen Archivist! Learn more at and subscribe to our Catalog newsletter to learn more about records in our Catalog and new citizen archivist transcription projects.

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