A silent film by British Pathe, ‘A Good Use For Zeppelins’, World War One. Published on You Tube, 13.4.2014. The remains of a zeppelin made into souvenirs, usually napkin rings, for the benefit of the War Seals Foundation. In 1916, the British War Office donated aluminium from another zeppelin to be made into souvenirs to be sold to benefit employees of the London and North-Western Railway who had been wounded in the war.
Collecting souvenirs was often a risky business. There are many contemporary accounts of soldiers taking foolhardy risks in order to acquire that unusual trophy, the danger itself probably adding to the value of the piece. So commonplace was it for a soldier to be killed or wounded while ‘souveniring‘, that it was often reported almost nonchalantly.
(Saunders, N. J., Trench Art: A Brief History and Guide 1914-1939, Pen & Sword Military, 2011, p.122)
The inspiration for this article came from a visit to my family at Easter. I noticed a couple of German artillery shells on the mantelpiece filled with yellow Chrysanthemums. A novel use for ‘spent ammunition’, I thought. Naturally, the historian in me was keen to find-out more.
The outer shells of both vases are decorated in relief depicting scenes from history including Hannibal crossing the Alps. My relative knew very few details about provenance and backstory of these objects which were given to her by a friend.
My relative told me that the shells were produced in a German munitions factory in World War One. The headstamp is inscribed: ‘Patronenfabrik Karlsruhe and Fried Krupp A.G.’. Krupp A.G. were founded in 1811 and during World War One manufactured munitions, heavy guns (16.5 inch howitzer known as “Big Bertha”, only four of these were made), barbed wire, stainless steel and eighty-four U-boats for the German Navy. The latter were built at Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft, a shipbuilding company in the harbour at Kiel. After World War One, Krupp supplied steel teeth and jaws for wounded veterans. Krupp A.G. remained the world’s leading steelmakers and arms manufacturers until the end of World War Two. The Krupp dynasty were also plagued by a number of high-profile scandals in the twentieth century but I will leave you to Google these for yourself!
Designs on the shell casings have been created by a technique known as ‘acid-etching’ and this example was likely to have been produced at Bezalel School of Arts in Jerusalem in the 1920s. Unfortunately, some of the detail has been lost due to years of over-polishing, which is a great shame but a common problem with these brass objects.
Researching the subject of ‘souveniring’ and Trench Art, of which these shell cases are particularly fine examples, has been fascinating. There is a lot written about this topic. Trench Art (sometimes called Soldier Art) is the collective term used to refer to war souvenirs that have been re-fashioned into everyday items or works of art. These objects represent a remembrance of war. Archaeologist, Nicholas Saunders, points-out:
Trench Art in the home was a way of linking the desolated individual with the wider community of bereaved, through shared displays of objects and also ensured that memories were always just a glance away. For the bereaved, placing a metal letter-opener, bullet-crucifix, or pair of polished shells on the mantelpiece, in the hallway or on a bedside dresser – perhaps next to a photograph of the deceased – was a constant reminder of the loved one.
(Saunders, N. J., Trench Art: A Brief History and Guide 1914-1939, Pen & Sword Military, 2011, p.129)
During World War One, these items were often used as ‘currency’, by soldiers and civilians, to purchase food and other sundries. It is important to note here that most Trench Art was created away from the trenches, contrary to what the name suggests. During quieter periods of non-action, it is true that some soldiers did make objects out of ballistic detritus but most items were made by POWs and convalescing soldiers (as handicraft therapy). Civilians with an artistic eye also produced Trench Art. These attractive mementos were sold to make extra cash or raise funds for war-related charitable causes. Regimental badges were turned into ‘sweetheart jewellery’ which soldiers gave to their wives or girlfriends back home. After the war, battlefield tourists would purchase a piece of Trench Art as a souvenir of their visit.
Prisoners of war on both sides of the conflict produced an amazing variety of artifacts made for sale to soldiers or civilians in areas near the camps in which they were interned. Some camps held artistic exhibitions in which these handicrafts were offered for sale to the public. British civilians in Ruhleben, a camp outside Berlin, produced a number of objects made by melting down silver coins. They also made inventive use of available materials such as rat skins to make leather wallets. Many of these items were sent home as souvenirs to their families in Britain. German prisoners in Britain created flower vases and napkin rings using mutton and beef bones from their rations, while Turkish prisoners made realistic snakes and other objects from beads. Russian prisoners made use of their woodworking skills to produce carved cigarette boxes and other items. Members of the Royal Naval Division interned in Holland crafted a variety of wooden boxes and picture frames. When brass and aluminum were made available to prisoners, many of them made souvenir shell vases, match box covers or letter openers to sell to their captors or to nearby civilians.
….time has obscured the provenance of many of these pieces forever. As they are dredged from basements and attics, relics of a long forgotten war, and sold or consigned to second hand or antique shops or sold at estate sales, objects are forced to speak for themselves. Some pieces, with specific names, units, battles and dates are eloquent. . .most have drifted far from their original moorings.
(Kimball, J. A., Trench Art of the Great War and Related Souvenirs,  2005, accessed on-line 13.4.14)
I had no idea how widespread the practice of ‘souveniring’ was during World War One. Shrapnel, buttons, helmets, gun cartridges, bullets and shells were some of the more traditional items procured from the battlefield. Fine examples of Trench Art can be found in Museums across the world, antique stores and on-line auction sites. However, many of these objects can be found in a domestic setting, often handed down between generations or exchanged as gifts amongst friends. But sadly, as Jane Kimball points-out above, objects such as the vases belonging to my relative, have now become detached from their owners and therefore much of their original sentimental value has been lost.
One of the most famous soldiers who dabbled in the art of ‘souveniring’ was Liverpudlian John “Barney” Hines (1873-1958). His story is extraordinary, in northern France he has become a bit of a legend amongst the region’s treasure-hunters where ploughed fields still expel ‘iron harvest’ a century later. Hines began his military career serving in the Royal Navy and then joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment. His first campaign was the Second Boer War (1899-1902) where he unfortunately contracted malaria.
When World War One broke-out, Hines had only just emigrated to Australia. He volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force in August, 1915. Early 1916, he was discharged as being medically unfit. However, as the war progressed and the need for men increased, recruitment rules, particularly in relation to medical fitness, were relaxed. In August, 1916, Hines took the opportunity to re-enlist and was sent to the Western Front in May, 1917 where he remained until June, 1918. Unfortunately, his health continued to hamper his active service which eventually resulted in another medical discharge, this time due to problems with his haemorrhoids.
Apart from his ongoing health problems, Hines had a number of character traits that made him a less than ideal ‘poster-boy’ for the forces. Hines was illiterate and prone to periods of erratic behaviour, he also enjoyed a drop or two of the ‘good old amber nectar’ even trading some of his treasured souvenirs for alcohol and more seriously, a stolen horse for a bottle of whiskey. On another occasion, he supposedly ‘found’ suitcases, full of French Francs, in a bank. Another incident involved a grandfather clock which he had purloined and brought back to his trench, much to the frustrations of his colleagues. The clock didn’t remain for long, its chimes attracted enemy attention so his fellow soldiers blew it to bits. His military records show that he was court martialed no less than nine times for drunkenness and a further entry shows he went AWOL after a bout of stealing.
However, having said all of that, Hines was actually a competent soldier. On one occasion, June, 1917, he captured sixty Germans by throwing hand grenades into their pillbox at the Battle of Messines. A heroic deed that most soldiers would receive a recommendation for military honours. However, due to his behaviour between these periods of fighting, one action certainly cancelling out the other, his brave efforts were overlooked. He was never decorated during his military career. Hines ended his days, in abject poverty, sleeping rough on the outskirts of Sydney until he eventually died in January, 1958, aged eighty-four.