I’ve recently been reading, on an early version of Kindle, the diary of an anonymous nursing sister who served on hospital trains during World War 1. I can’t help contrasting her experiences and the demands of nursing the wounded and the dangerously ill with all that has been bubbling up since the Stafford Hospital revelations of the lows in nursing 100 years later. Her description of the perilous condition of many of the patients, coupled with our realisation of how limited the treatment options were 100 years ago, makes it a somewhat gruelling read for those whose imagination tends to overdrive. There’s a fair bit of anecdotal description of trench life from the patients and some interesting glimpses of the views of the ‘enemy’ patients she nursed.
This is one of a number of books of interest to family and local historians that are available free of charge and can be downloaded either from Amazon, or from one of the other providers listed below . When I was first given my Kindle, I focused on adding to it books that would be free and useful.
If you do find a book online, and it’s free, whether or not it’s in a version for Kindle, act. Bookmarking the page will not necessarily help you to locate it again. There is a phenomenon that I liken to booking your travel online. [You visit a site, as part of a wider trawling expedition, and go back to the most favourable offer, a short time later…and it’s gone up in price.] It always seems to me that once ‘your visit has shown interest, in the form of leaving a cookie, you find the price inflated when you revisit the site. In the case of out-of-print books, you’ll find the free version has vanished, but someone’s offering it, in another format, for sale.
I became aware of how fleeting a book’s availability might be, after noticing online a free version of memoirs that would have been of interest to descendants of the writer. The free pdf had vanished when, some months later, I made contact with other descendants of the writer, only to find, when I had mentioned it to them, that it was only available as a printout at an exorbitant cost. Worse, it was no longer accessible where I had added it to my Google Books. Fortunately I had saved the free version when I saw it, but I so nearly hadn’t bothered as it was a rather large file and I had access to a rather worn out copy of the book. Nowadays I am very careful, when I come across a publication of interest, to ‘harvest’ immediately.
What if the free versions don’t include a Kindle version? Well, there’s almost always a pdf version. Download that to your computer, and do what you can’t do with a Kindle purchase: rename it so the title is recognisable and short enough to show on the list of ‘items’. (Maybe that’s only necessary on older Kindles!) Eliminating initial articles (The, A, An) helps, for a start. Once you have it on your computer, you email the file to your Kindle. To work out your Kindle address is simple. The user name is exactly the same username as the email address that you use for your Amazon account. (If your email address is firstname.lastname@example.org then you email the file to email@example.com.) No subject, no body text in the email, just attach the file.
The Hot List
Here’s my shortlist of current favourites. Please don’t draw attention to it. I’d hate these books to vanish before others find them.
Anonymous, Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front 1914-1915, Kindle edition. The same book is offered on Amazon by ‘independent publishing platforms’ at prices between £10 and £20, with no ‘caveat emptor’. This book covers the writer’s nine months nursing in France, much of it spent on the hospital trains, nursing the most seriously wounded. It reveals the reality of D.O.W. but also the heroism of patients and nursing staff. The book was published by William Blackwood & Sons in 1915 (Edinburgh and London).
Buchan, J., The History of the South African Forces in France, London, 1920, [Thomas Nelson & Sons]. Anyone interested in out-of-print regimental histories will find that many are available in formats that are suitable for Kindle or eBooks. If I remember correctly this book would have cost me £37.50, and I suspect that it might have turned out to be a printout from a pdf.
Waugh, E. Home Life of the Lancashire Factory Folk during the Cotton Famine, Public Domain, Kindle Edition. [This riveting read was introduced to me by Denise, a fellow family historian. It is a reprint of Edwin Waugh’s articles in The Manchester Examiner and Times of 1862. Week by week he describes his visits to the poor in Blackburn, Preston and Wigan.] If you are looking for insight into the realities of poverty in 19th century Britain, you will find it here.
There are many nuggets out there. While researching a handloom linen weaver in Scotland, an immigrant from Lurgan in Armagh, I came across, on the Internet Archive, an illustrated booklet The Hand Loom Linen Weavers of Ireland and their Work by James White, published Chicago. Irish Hand-woven Linen Damask Company, (date of publication not evident). Booklets like this broaden one’s understanding of trades, skills, working life and can flesh out the story of an individual for whom few records survive. There is a Kindle edition, and in the case of this book, I should point out that free Kindle editions often show the signs of digitisation without subsequent editing.
There’s a dedicated community of volunteers who are steadily converting physical editions of out-of-print, out-of copyright books and pamphlets to digital editions. We would not have so wide a choice if each one had had to be edited word by word. The Hand Loom Weavers has quite a few puzzling passages e.g. sometimes the caption is detached from the picture it supports, or a page number floats inside the text. Stick with it, despite the blips, and they soon become less intrusive because your brain can, and will, adjust to cater for that.
If these occasional blips really bother you and interfere with your reading, then do read the original book online. The clearest images for this are found on the Open Library. Taking The Hand Loom Weavers as an example, follow the hyperlink to it, two paragraphs back, in this post. You’ll see, towards the bottom of the box that gives you the book’s details e.g. Author Subject Publisher, a tiny blue icon for the Open Library. To the right of this icon are the words “This book has an editable web page on the Open Library”.
Click on the words editable web page and you will be taken to the main page for the book, on the Open Library website. Select the option Read online and you will be able to read a perfect copy of the book and to make use of the zoom feature to increase the font size.
Potential Sources of Free Digital Editions
Hathi Trust Digital Library
The Internet Archive
VIRGO [This has replaced the inimitable Electronic Text Centre of the University of Virginia. Many of the Etext’s resources are still available here, or have been migrated to other providers such as Google Books and Project Gutenberg.]
Finding Regimental Histories
Visit The Long Long Trail to find to which division the regiment or the battalion of interest was attached. You may need this later if a search for the regiment produces no results. Just type the regiment’s name in the search box at the top of the page. The first search result is usually the page you want. Scan the page for the Battalion Number, and note to which Division it was attached at the period of interest to you.
Use a search engine, keying in the regiment’s name in lower case and the words regimental history. Omit the battalion number on your initial search. Scan the search results. What looks promising? How might you narrow down the results by adding another keyword to your search terms?
I have recently found a number of other useful personal accounts or regimental histories, all of them free for electronic readers, including Kindle. They include:
Ainsworth, R.B., The Story of the 6th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry, France, April 1915–November 1918, London, 1919 [St Catherine Press].
Anonymous, Regimental Nicknames and Traditions of the British Army, 5th ed., London, 1916, [Gale & Polden]. With its colour illustrations, this is definitely one to read online! Find it on the Internet Archive, and follow the link to the Open Library, rather than downloading it from Kindle.
Buchan, J., History of the South African Forces in France, This also covers the South African Brigade’s earlier operations elsewhere, for example against the Senussi, It is one of many regimental histories undertaken by John Buchan. His affection for the South African Brigade, which was attached to the 9th Scottish Division is reflected in his dedication to his novel Mr Standfast, which reads: “TO THAT MOST GALLANT COMPANY THE OFFICERS AND MEN OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN INFANTRY BRIGADE ON THE WESTERN FRONT”.
Thompson, E., The Leicestershires Beyond Baghdad (1919), London, [Epworth].
Ward, F.W. The 23rd (Service Battalion) Royal Fusiliers (First Sportsmans’) London, 1920, [Sidgwick & Jackson].
Weetman, W.C.C., The Sherwood Foresters in the Great War, 1914–1918: 1/8th Battalion, Nottingham, 1920, [Thomas Forman & Sons].
An altogether different view—for World War 1, sides are taken— can come from the observations of journalists and writers.
Bennett, A., Over There: War Scenes on the Western Front, 1915. Bennet was sent by the War Propaganda Bureau to tour the front in 1915. He was horrified at what he saw, but agreed to produce an account that would encourage men to enlist. At this point, enlistment was still on ‘voluntary’ or under moral pressure. Balance his journalistic ability to observe and describe with the propaganda that, today, is likely to rankle.
Hales, A.G., Campaign Pictures of the War in South Africa (1899–1900) Letters from the Front, Melbourne, 1901, [Cassell & Company]. These are the letters, sent back for publication, of a journalist covering the experience of the Australians sent to South Africa to support the British forces.
Next month: Electronic readers and research
I also saw the opportunity to use my Kindle to carry about with me the notes, glossaries and aide memoires I need for my research. I have several tips for adding your own documents to Kindle, so I’ll be writing them up in a future post. I also use a Kindle version for Android and DropBox, on my smartphone, to access research aids that I might need to have on hand in an archive, thus avoiding taking in loose sheets of notes that need to be inspected page by page at security points.