Category Archives: Military Era
As a collector of militaria, I tend to fixate my thoughts on those pieces that pertain to combat or combat personnel, such as their uniforms and weaponry. With my specific area of interest—those in my family and ancestry who served in uniform in the armed forces—collecting items to recreate representations for these people has been relatively simple. My passion for history and knowledge of the United States military provides me with a leg up in the pursuit of knowledge and the nuances of the required research. As I pursue certain branches of my family tree, I am required to depart from this American-centric comfort zone as I head toward the land of the unknown: the Canadian and British military forces.
While conducting some scant research on a few relatives, I discovered that one of them, a Scot, served with the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot (which would later become the Black Watch) in the Americas during the War of 1812, as I mentioned in my piece, The Obscure War – Collecting the War of 1812. This ancestor, as well as his father (who also served in the same Scottish regiment), fought for what I would deem as the “enemy.” Once I got past that distinction, I was able to continue researching, setting aside any biases.
In researching more immediate family members along the same British family lines (see my previous post, I am an American Veteran with Canadian Military Heritage), I discovered that my great, great-grandfather answered his nation’s call to serve against Imperial Germany in what would be known as the War to End All Wars. At his “advanced” age of 47 and a recent widower, my ancestor could have elected to abstain from service (the Military Service Act, 1917 required service of men aged 18-41), yet he felt compelled to serve in some capacity. Like many Canadians who would otherwise have been ineligible for military duty due to age or physical limitations, and who served in other support-based, non-combatant, units, my great, great-grandfather joined the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (C.E.F.) Forestry Battalion.
With the insatiable demand for lumber to be utilized at the war front (for trench walls and shoring, duckboards, crates, containers and building construction), the British government called upon the experienced woodsmen of North America to begin to harvest the seemingly unending forests of Canada. Desiring expediency in the supply chain between the lumbermen and the front, combined with the demand to utilize the invaluable cargo space aboard the merchant vessels for other needs, the military leaders determined that by bringing the Forestry Corps troops to Europe to harvest timber in the forests of the UK and France would better serve the needs of the front line troops.
Between 1916 and the signing of the Armistice, some 31,000 men served with the C.E.F. Forestry Corps in Canada and Europe. During that period, the Forestry Corps produced nearly 814,000,000 feet board measure of sawn wood plus 1,114,000 tons of other wood products. Though he probably never picked up a weapon (some units were close enough to the front and were required to be prepared to be used as reserve troops), my great, great grandfather served in an invaluable capacity risking life and limb for the war effort.
As with all of my collecting efforts, I am continuously seeking to document and locate artifacts that can be assembled to form representative displays for the many veterans in my family’s history. With regard to my great, great grandfather, I have only begun to scratch the surface in researching the uniforms of the Forestry Corps and what he might have worn along with any decorations he might have earned.
A few years ago, I managed to locate a pair of collar devices that are specific to his unit, the 230th Forestry Battalion. Being that my focus has been with U.S. militaria, I’ve gained an appreciation for the beauty of the Canadian and British uniform appointments. In examining the devices, one can quickly see the Canadian heritage in the maple leaf design. Along with the Forestry Corps word-mark, there is a beaver on the crest to punctuate the principal function of the unit. Superimposed across the front is the battalion designation, clearly identifying to which military unit the wearer belongs to.
Not too long after locating the collar devices, an auction for the matching hat device was listed and I was the subsequent highest bidder. With three pieces, I started watching for other items that would display well in a small shadow box of items representing my great-great grandfather’s service. Searching for such hard to find items as Canadian Forestry Corps pieces requires patience. I am not sure exactly how far I will go in the pursuit of assembling this Forestry Corps display as the pieces are sparse and difficult to find when compared to U.S. pieces of the same era. It might be quite costly to put together the even most minimalistic grouping of items which may force me to quit with what I have today.
Like my other ongoing projects, this one could last the span of several years. More so than funds, I have the time to wait for the right pieces!
One of the most exciting aspects of militaria collecting for me is when I can locate an item that can be connected to one of my family members’ military service. To date, I have predominantly made those connections with my ancestors who served in the United States Armed Forces. However, when I started searching for relevant militaria pieces (that would be relevant to my Canadian or British veteran ancestors), I discovered that if I had deep enough pockets, there would have been an opportunity to obtain something that could be associated with my 4th great-grandfather who served with the legendary 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot, The Black Watch.
With the research that I’ve conducted during the last several years, I’ve been focusing on those of my ancestors with military service. I’ve been following each branch of the tree, tracing back through each generation, some of which first reached the colonial shores in the late 1600s from Western Europe. Without boring you with the details, I have been successful in locating ancestors who served and fought in almost every war since the establishment of the colonies, including the French and Indian War.
As a veteran of the US Navy, my interest has been centered on those of my ancestors who wore the uniform of the United States. What I didn’t count on was finding veterans who fought for what my American ancestors would have called “the enemy.” One ancestor in particular was a member of one of the elite British units (which is still in existence) and fought against the forces of the US during the War of 1812. I discovered that still another of my American ancestors was taken prisoner by the British and actually met the enemy ancestor (I know, this sounds confusing).
During one of my subsequent militaria searches, I discovered an online auction house that had a listing for foreign military headgear that were some of the most beautifully pristine pieces I have ever seen. Not being educated in foreign militaria, I was caught up in the aesthetic aspects of each piece while I was almost completely ignorant as to authenticity, time period of use, or even the military history of the piece. But one lot in particular caught my attention.
Prominently displayed as part of the group was an Officer’s Feather Bonnet and Glengarry Cap that was from 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot, The Black Watch, the unit which dates back to the early 18th century. Both headpieces featured ornate badges with the unit number prominently emblazoned at the center of the design. The condition of the hats were so spectacular that they appeared to be recent manufacture, however the quality of the items spoke to their age.
As I read the auction description, disappointment soon set in as I learned that the cap dated to 1885 and the bonnet was from the turn of the 20th century, probably from 1900. Any disappointment that I may have felt in learning of the relative recency of the pieces was assuaged by the reality that the lot probably sold for a price that is unrealistic for my budget (I didn’t bother following it through the auction close). It is okay to dream every once in a while, isn’t it?
Before I can start investing in anything from the 18th and 19th centuries, I need to spend a lot of time and resources solidifying my research on my ancestors.
I also need to start playing the lottery.
One of my hobbies – truth be told, it is more than just a hobby for me – is genealogy research. Specifically, I am interested in uncovering facts and details pertaining to those of my ancestors who served in combat or just in uniform for this country. As with any research project, each piece of verifiable data opens the door for new, deeper research. One thing I haven’t been able to do is to find a stopping point once that occurs.
Due to the recency of that time period, researching veterans who served in the twentieth century may seem to be an easy task when one considers the sheer volume of paperwork that can be created for or associated with an individual service member. If one has the time and resources available, it can be relatively easy to obtain all the records connecting a soldier, sailor, airman or marine to every aspect of their service during World War II or Korea. However, this becomes increasingly difficult as you seek details for those who served in earlier times.
Booms in militaria markets occur around significant anniversaries which propel history enthusiasts into seeking artifacts and objects from these events. On April 2, 2017, the United States began to mark the centennial of her entry into WW1 (the date is the anniversary of President Wilson’s request to Congress for a formal declaration of war against Germany) which has ignited an interest in WWI militaria by existing and new militaria seekers, alike resulting in a significant spike in prices. The renewed interest is a repeat of another of the United States’ conflicts that occurred just a few years ago.
During 2012, several states and the U.S. Navy initiated commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (formally declared by Congress on June 18, 1812) and the year-long recognition of this monumental conflict between the United States and Great Britain. This war has seemingly been a mere footnote when taught in American schools, exceedingly overshadowed by the War for Independence or the War between the States, and very little documentation is available for research when compared to other more popular conflicts.
My ancestral history has confirmed that several lines in my family are early settlers of what became the United States. So far, I have been able to locate documentation verifying that three of my ancestors fought in support of the struggle for Independence. Several generations downstream from them shows an even more significant amount of family taking up arms during the Civil War. The documentation that is available in print and online is incredible when it comes to researching either of these two wars. But what about the conflicts in between – the War of 1812 in particular?
By chance, I was able to locate two veterans (family members) who fought in this 32-month long war with England. The strange thing about it is that one fought for the “enemy” and the other for the United States. Even more strange was that they met on the field of battle with the American being taken captive and subsequently guarded by the British soldier. At some point, the two became more than cordial enemies and the American POW’s escape was benefited by that friendship. Years later, the two veterans would meet (after the British veteran immigrated to North America) and the one-time adversaries would become neighbors. The American veteran would ultimately marry the former Brit’s daughter, forever linking the two families.
While researching the War of 1812 can be difficult for genealogists, collecting authentic militaria of the conflict poses an even greater challenge. Very little remains in existence and, of that, even less is in private hands making it next to impossible for individual collectors to obtain without paying exorbitant prices or being taken by unscrupulous sellers (or both).
To say that uniforms from the period are scarce is putting it very mildly. The ravages of time exact their toll on the natural fibers of the cloth (wool, cotton) and the suppleness of leather, making anything that survived to present day an extremely delicate item. Hardware such as buttons and buckles are more likely to be available and while less expensive than a tunic or uniform, they will still be somewhat pricey.
I have resigned myself to the idea that owning any militaria item from the first 100 years of our nation’s existence is out of the question choosing instead to marvel at the collections that are available within the confines of museums.
What good is a collection if it is maintained behind a closet door (where mine tends to be), stored in the basement or locked in a trunk? We spend years gathering items and filling in gaps in our collections as we reach goals that, in some cases, could take a lifetime to achieve. Despite those successes, we fail when we choose to keep them under wraps, hidden from the eyes of our house guests.
Most collectors’ spouses raise objections to the idea of them bringing old, musty-smelling objects into the spaces that we regularly inhabit. Olive drab hardly matches any home decor and the idea of weapons, armament and mannequins occupying limited floor or wall space tends to create friction with our spouses or significant others.
When I can, I like to visit museums that choose to commit their valuable floor real estate to displaying military history. I enjoy seeing the care that was taken by the staff to draw from the collection a tasteful blend of artifacts to present specific themes or create visual representations of specific historic events. Knowing that too much can cause viewers to gloss over the display, missing the all of the details. Too few artifacts or vague information cards in a display can have a similar effect. In both cases, the efforts of the curator are laid to waste as the museum visitor ambles past the display.
Through my membership in the U.S. Militaria Forum, I have seen some very impressive personal collections with well thought out displays that rival any of the best museums in the United States. From the hand-crafted cases and cabinets to the tastefully selected art hung on the walls, these collectors demonstrate that their investment is something to share with others.
Not too long ago, the Naval Academy Museum shared some photos on their Facebook page of one of their latest displays that showcases one of the most historic events of the last century, the signing of the Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Presented is the uniform worn by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz on that September 1945 day in Tokyo Bay. The display clearly shows his khaki uniform with the rare 5-star insignia affixed to each collar. The museum staff went as far to alter the mannequin’s left ring finger to match Nimitz’s left hand: a portion of his finger was severed in 1916 by a diesel engine that he was demonstrating.
The key, limiting factor in my home is that I have a considerable lack of space. It is challenging enough to store my collection so the thought of propping up torsos to show my uniforms is nullified. Besides, it can be a little disturbing to walk into a room and see a still and quiet human-form at 4:00 AM as I prepare to head off to work.
A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a public showing of my military baseball collection at our state fair in their hobby hall. My artifacts where showcased in and among adult and youth collections that were varied, ranging from pig-themed collectibles to artifacts from our nation’s bicentennial celebration. This year, I have yet another part of my militaria collection on display at the state fair. Being that the overwhelming military population (veterans, retirees, reservists and active duty personnel) is army and air force, I wanted to educate the citizenry on enlisted uniforms of the United States Navy. I gathered a few selections of my enlisted rating badges and uniforms to spotlight the history, designs and the ratings themselves. My wife and I visited the fair and stood in the distance to observe visitors to see how they respond to what I had on display. People-watching is fun but seeing people enjoying these artifacts is pleasing and provides some satisfaction to collecting, even if I can only experience it on rare occasions.
Spotlight on private collector militaria displays