Finding a Finding Aid: World War I

This week’s post is from Richard Green, an Archives Technician with the Motion Picture, Video and Recorded Sound Division of NARA’s Research Services.  Richard is enrolled in the History and Library Science (HiLS) dual-degree graduate program at the University of Maryland. 

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand in the summer of 1914 sparked the beginning of World War I.  Although the United States did not enter the war for another three years, the 100th anniversary of the Great War is rapidly approaching.  In response to this upcoming anniversary, members of the Motion Picture Department at NARA are preparing for an increased demand in WWI films.

One record group that will undoubtedly be of interest for WWI researchers is the Historical Film Series produced by the United States Army Office of the Chief Signal Officer (RG 111 H).  The Historical Film Series includes about 500 films with original footage from WWI.  In addition to the films themselves, NARA holdings also include the production files, army records, and an index card finding aid.

Unfortunately, the index card finding aid had never been readily accessible to researchers.  The cards sat in 77 unlabeled and broken down cardboard boxes for many years.  In fact, the content of these cards was somewhat of a mystery, and their archival value was relatively unknown.  I took on the task of sorting through the 130,000 cards in an attempt to make them a usable research tool once again.

As I opened Box Number 1, I was pleased to discover a detailed organization system.  The cards were sorted by subject and ranged from Aero to YMCA.  Many subjects, such as buildings, were then broken into sub-headings such as: barracks, billets, churches, headquarters, homes, interiors, camps, etc.  Each card contained a detailed description of what was going on in that particular scene, when the footage was shot, where the scene took place, and even the name of the cameraman who originally shot the film.

111H--Picture of Box

As I continued to probe through the material, I found the cards were cross-referenced in various ways.  The same index cards from the subject headings were also filed chronologically and sorted by individual day.  The dates began in May of 1917,  shortly after the United States entered the war, and continued until July 14, 1919, shortly after the Treaty of Versailles was signed.  Cards were also cross-referenced by geographic location, by officer’s name, by enlisted personnel, and even by prominent civilians.

Perhaps the most interesting arrangement of cards, however, was by Army Service Division.  Within these boxes, the ranks of army divisions were meticulously broken down.  The 1st Division, for example, was subsequently organized by 1st Brigade, 16th infantry, 18th infantry, 1st Machine Gun Battalion, 1st Trench Mortar Battery, 1st Engineers, and many more.

As I went through each box, I typed the headings and subheadings for each index card.  I then proceeded to re-house the index cards in more ‘archivally sound’ containers, and finally gave each box an appropriate label.

Although the index cards are impressive on their own, they are essentially useless without a way to find the film they are describing.  Further analysis of the textual records revealed that two crosswalks (a chart that converts one set of numbers into a new set of numbers) were needed to get from the index card to the film.

For example, let’s say that you are looking for a WWI film depicting the use of chemical weapons in France.  You would begin by reviewing the list of headings and submitting a pull slip for the desired box.  Box 29, for instance, includes cards under the heading chemical warfare.  Within this boxes is the following index card:

111 Subject Index Card FINALThe scene number at the top right of the index card correlates to an A.E.F. number.  The scene number represents the raw footage from the field, while the A.E.F. number is how the raw footage was compiled by the Army.  The following crosswalk converts the scene number to A.E.F number:

Next, a similar crosswalk converts the A.E.F. number to the Historical Series number.  The Historical Series number represents the fully edited film that is now available at NARA.

The film below is 111-H-1261, Occupation of the Ansauville Sector (Lorraine), Jan. 15-April 3, 1918, First Division, 1936.  The scene described on the index card can be viewed towards the end of Reel 2 (at 23:57 in the video).

To summarize, the scene number at the top of the index card correlates to the A.E.F. number, which correlates to a Historical Series number.  While this may seem like a complicated process, it is not as complex as it sounds.  A finding aid the Motion Picture Research Room includes all of the index card headings and the two crosswalks necessary to get to the film.

For the researcher who wants to find their great grandfather in the 102nd Machine Gun Battalion, a film from Bouis De Berlier, France, or perhaps footage of gas masks, the 111 H index cards now offer a “new” approach to WWI research.

2 thoughts on “Finding a Finding Aid: World War I

  1. Fascinating blog! You explained a complex topic in a meaningful way. Not to mention the incredible amount of time and labor you put into this project. Well done Richard!

  2. Great stuff, Richard, and nicely illustrated as well. I’ll definitely watch the film in its entirety over the weekend. Having any of these reels available to view digitally is great. Note the dog on top of the wagon at 1:08-1:12. Gotta love mascot shots!

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