Tales from the WWI Crypt

Sarah E. Dunne, MLIS
Archivist & Librarian
Lang Education Center & Library Owls Head Transportation Museum
sd@ohtm.org

Several years ago, I was hired as the first professional librarian at a surprisingly large transportation museum in Mid Coast Maine. The museum, whose focus is pre-1940 vehicles, was founded in the early 1970s, the extensive library decades later. With my interest and experience in archives and the encouragement of trustees and our former curator, I’ve become the museum’s first trained archivist as well. Double Lone Arranger.

Many of you likely have been involved with the resurgence of interest in World War I due to the multiple recent centennials, whether American or European or both. One of our neighbors, the Knox Museum, recently hosted a World War One History Day, complete with reenactors. A great deal of our collection dates from that era, and they kindly asked us to collaborate with them. I began assembling portable, stable pieces from our extensive WWI ephemera collection, and our vehicle conservators supported the event by scheduling a visit from our 1913 Rolls-Royce that had been in Europe at the outset of the war, and a flyover by one of our WWI biplanes. One of the great things about working at an operating museum is that we actually run most of our collection, and frequently fly our biplanes. The 1913 Rolls? Fully roadworthy, registered and street legal.

We had a great variety of supporting materials to display, from books, magazines, and newspapers to sheet music, trench art, and aviators’ equipment and photo albums, but I used the occasion as an excuse to root around in remote storage. In a corner at the back of a dusty shelf (we all have those dusty mystery shelves left by predecessors, yes?) was a small cardboard box labeled only with “[donor name] WWI” and an accession number. Mildly curious, I opened it, expecting the quotidian pilot souvenirs. Instead, out comes this menacing-looking metal…thing. It was obviously some sort of mask; there were slotted eye guards that looked like a medieval version of those shutter sunglasses that were briefly, inexplicably popular in the Eighties and even more inexplicably revived by Kanye West. But these had chainmail hanging below the eye guards. From the markings, it was British-made. But what on earth was this creepy contraption?!?

I checked the catalog record, input by an unnamed volunteer almost a decade ago. It said only “Aviator’s metal face armament”. This simply didn’t make any sense; besides its restricted vision, a metal face mask could be positively dangerous in the often freezing temperatures of an early open-cockpit airplane.

Most of my coworkers and volunteers had the same reaction – “Hannibal Lecter?”. A couple of our military history-buff volunteers recognized what it was, but for fun we posted a shot of it on the Museum’s Facebook page, offering a small prize to the first commenter to correctly identify it. We got all sorts of guesses – early safety glasses, mask for dirt-racing motorcycles, WWI flight mask, coalman’s mask, welding mask, furnace mask…only a few posts got it right. It is a British World War One tank crew “splatter mask”, also called a “splinter mask”, “spall mask”, or “splash mask”.

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British World War One tank crew “splatter mask.” Photo courtesy Owls Head Transportation Museum.

As in no major conflict before it, the Great War saw the rapid metamorphosis of traditional infantry and cavalry into heavily mechanized forces. Aeroplanes were first seen by most as of marginal use, good only for scouting and observation missions; only gradually did they become the fighters and bombers now familiar to us. Early tanks likewise were primitive vehicles, and their very use was opposed by many military leaders, especially those in the cavalry, who were right to see them as potential competition. But in the new trench warfare, especially when the crippling mud set in, conventional fighting methods failed and armies found themselves at a stalemate. Late 1916: enter the tank, whose caterpillar treads could take on the sludge and deep trenches of the battlefront that humans or horses couldn’t master. Initially the tanks were crude machines that did get bogged down easily in ditches and trenches, but the Allies – primarily the British and French – rapidly improved them to the point that they proved invaluable on the battlefield, and the Axis powers had to scramble to catch up. True, there were versions of armored vehicles dating back centuries, but the tank as we know it was a modern invention.

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British World War One tank crew “splatter mask.” Photo courtesy Owls Head Transportation Museum.

The early tanks were primitive and miserable, and the driver was subject to the same suffocating conditions as the rest of the crew. If you’ve ever been stuck in a stifling Halloween costume, imagine how unbelievably worse it would be if you were part of an eight-man crew wearing heavy woolen uniforms, jammed into a cramped, sweltering metal box on wheels that was lurching through mud and trenches while under fire. Engine and gun noise; the air heavy with sweat, exhaust vapors (no barrier between engine and crew), and cordite fumes from the weapons; overheated rivets and spall (bits of the shoddy boiler plate metal from inside your own tank) popping out at you…and then the driver had to try to look outside to direct the crew without getting his face blown off. The earlier tanks had no raised turrets as we know them, so the crew were level with the treads. To see out, there were only hinged metal flaps.

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British tank crossing trenches, from Collier’s Photographic History of The World’s War, 1918.

To counter the danger of shrapnel and bullets, many crews wore helmets, initially only leather but then metal, with splatter masks. The metal goggles above the chain mail were covered with leather back and front, and most provided some protection for the nose as well. They were not without their own drawbacks. In order to protect the wearer’s eyes, the slotted goggles significantly reduced vision. And in the superheated tanks, where temperatures could reach more than 120° Fahrenheit, it was a dilemma whether to suffer the added misery of a hot and sweaty mask or risk facial wounds and burns.

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Front view of a British Tank, ca. 1916, from Photographic History of The World’s War, 1918.

Our mask had long since lost its leather covering and its fabric straps; for display purposes I fashioned substitutes out of period-correct bookbinding cloth, courtesy of a beat-up 1918 edition of Collier’s Photographic History of The World’s War. The book had only weeks before been given to us by a military aviation historian and long-time donor, who intended it to be taken apart (we have two other intact copies). I then rebound the book and it is now our handling copy for interactive displays.

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British “Centipede”/”Mother”/”Big Willie” tank, ca. 1916–afterwards known at the Mark I Tank, from Photographic History of The World’s War, 1918.
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World War One “Splatter Masks,” ca. 1916. Photo in the Public Domain.

Now that we know we have the mask, our videographer and I have been lobbying the museum’s Collections Committee to acquire a tank to go with it, but despite our faultless logic – what if we were invaded by Canada? Can they not see that it’s only a few hours’ drive away, and they could attack by sea from Nova Scotia in no time? – our pleas have thus far fallen on deaf ears.

Becker Archives Digital Content Organization Plan

Stephen Logsdon
Archivist
Washington University School of Medicine
logsdons@wustl.edu

The Becker Archives Digital Content Organization Plan (BADCOP) outlines the file-naming convention used for all digital content maintained by the Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives at the Washington University School of Medicine. To explain how it works, I want to first draw your attention to the ornate document labeled Number 1 which is the US Army commission given to Dr. William Beaumont during the War of 1812. This document can be found in the William Beaumont Papers at the Becker Library. President James Madison signed this commission appointing Dr. Beaumont as a surgeon in the Sixth Regiment of Infantry in the US Army on December 2, 1812.

Imagine that a patron wanted a scanned copy of this document in PDF format. Once you scan it for them, you’ll need to provide a filename for the PDF on a screen that looks similar to the image labeled Number 2. What filename do you give it? Should the filename begin with “William Beaumont” or “Beaumont-William”? Should you only say it’s a commission, or should you be more specific and indicate it’s a surgeon’s commission in the US Army? Should James Madison’s name be in the filename anywhere? Should you include the date of the document in the filename? All of these questions are important to consider when choosing a filename.

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The Becker Archives Digital Content Organization Plan, with the unfortunate acronym BADCOP, takes the guessing game out of assigning filenames because this plan centers on a methodical file-naming system. The basic premise of BADCOP is that the organization of digital content should follow the principle of archival arrangement (the organization and sequence of items within a collection). All filenames assigned using this method will use a series of symbolic letters and numbers that represent the scanned file’s arrangement within a collection. The BADCOP-compliant filename that I would assign to this document is labeled image Number 3: PC012-S05-B20-F03.pdf.

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Briefly looking at this filename, you’ll see that it does not say it’s a surgeon’s commission, it does not include William Beaumont’s name or James Madison’s, and it does not even contain the date of the document.  However, if you look closer at the filename, all of that information is included.  The filename PC012-S05-B20-F03.pdf is a code, and you can see how that code breaks down into identifiable pieces in the much abbreviated view of the finding aid to the William Beaumont Papers represented in image Number 4.

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PC012 is the collection code for Personal Collection #12, the William Beaumont Papers. S05 stands for Series #5, which is the series in which the commissions are located. B20 is Box #20. F03 is folder #3, which contains the 1812 surgeon’s commission signed by President Madison.

There are numerous justifications for using BADCOP, but the most important reason to implement this file-naming convention is to answer this question: Once you have scanned this document, and you have assigned it the filename PC012-S05-B20-F03.pdf, how are you ever going find that PDF again? The answer to that question is the beauty of BADCOP. Let’s say several years from now, a different patron asks you for a PDF of that exact same surgeon’s commission. How would you find it amongst the 1000s of digitized images on your computer, server, or wherever you store your digital content?

You would find the PDF of the surgeon’s commission in exactly the same way as you would if you were looking for the original physical copy of it. You should use the finding aid for the William Beaumont Papers. Don’t start this search with your digital files. Instead, go to the finding aid first and search for the description of the item you are looking for, which in this case is the 1812 surgeon’s commission. Once you find it, then you have also identified the BADCOP filename because you know its organizational location in the collection. It’s the third file of Box 20 in Series 5 of the Beaumont Papers. You can then create that corresponding filename on the fly while you’re looking at the finding aid: PC012-S05-B20-F03.pdf.

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Now that you know the filename you need, you are sufficiently prepared to find it amongst all your digital content. The ease of finding the correct digitized file is illustrated by the filenames listed in image Number 5. In this case, you have scanned only six documents in that collection. Picking out the filename you need is rather easy in this case.

Imagine that instead of six scanned documents, you had scanned 600 documents from this collection. If you have assigned BADCOP-compliant filenames to each file, all 600 scans will line up in your file directory in exactly the same order as your finding aid lists them. So all of your scanned documents from Series 3, are going to follow all of those from Series 1 and Series 2. All of the scans from Box 13 are going to be found after all the scans from Box 1 through Box 12. This means there is no need to open up random files on your computer from this collection to check if it’s the specific document you want. Because you have the filename in hand, you know the exact file you are looking for. So whether there are six, 600, or 6000 PDFs from this collection, finding the exact file you need takes only seconds, and that’s what makes BADCOP such an effective tool to use.

For more information about the BADCOP file-naming convention, visit:

https://becker.wustl.edu/resources/arb/policies/becker-archives-digital-content-organization-plan

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Commission signed by President James Madison appointing Dr. William Beaumont as a surgeon in the Sixth Regiment of Infantry in the US Army on December 2, 1812. Personal Collection #12, William Beaumont Papers, Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives, Washington University School of Medicine.