Last Wednesday, I ventured out of central London, where I’ve been studying this semester through the Boston University London Internship Program, to pay a visit to the United Kingdom’s National Archives in Kew. My goal was to see whether the archives have any documents or photographs of our two ambulance units, the 524 and the 525, or of Katherine Baker, Institute Class of 1892. Although both our ambulance drivers and Ms. Baker served with French army units, we remained hopeful that the British Army may have retained some artifacts from when these French units crossed path with British soldiers, since we have encountered images of Baker’s mobile hospital, the Autochir 7 at Cugny, taken by British Army photographers.
To get to the National Archives, I rode the tube almost to the end of the line in West London and took a short walk through a beautiful suburban neighborhood. The street opened up to an iron gate and a winding path, which lead to the building itself. The National Archives reside in a sprawling, modern, glass-and-concrete building, overlooking a duck-filled lake. Not only is the architecture gorgeous, but it lets a lovely bit of controlled natural light into the study rooms inside. Once I arrived and placed my things in a locker, I was directed upstairs to finish the registration process for a reader’s ticket. I was given an official card, which I’ll be able to use to access documents from the archive for the next five years.
Now that I had my card, I entered the archive and visited the help desk to ask for some guidance. The National Archives has an excellent searchable online database, but I had been unable to find anything in the preliminary research that I had conducted before visiting. The archivist working the help desk was happy to help me look through reference catalogs and direct me to the right places to search in their database, though she warned me that they likely wouldn’t have any documents on French or American troops. When I asked about photographs, I was unfortunately told that many of the archive’s photographs have not yet been cataloged, so it is difficult to search for specific people or units within the collection. The archivist did, however, agree to consult with her colleague who is an expert in military history to see whether there were any promising leads I could follow.
In the meantime, I took up my search again in the National Archives database, using the some of the new keywords and lists that the archivist had suggested. Once again, though, I was unable to find anything of use to the Bucknellians in World War I project. After about an hour of searching, I was informed that the other archivist was not aware of any materials relating to American nurses or ambulance units within their collection.
I ended my day at the archives with some tea and a banana muffin from the café. Although I am, of course, a bit disappointed that I wasn’t able to find anything useful in my search, I am grateful for the chance to continue practicing my research skills and to add to my experience conducting research in archives. I’m glad that we can officially check the UK’s National Archives off of our search list, as well. Next, I plan to visit the archives of the Imperial War Museum in South London to see if I’ll have any more luck there.