Category Archives: World War I
To most casual observers, army insignia patches (known as shoulder sleeve insignia or SSI) affixed to the shoulders of military uniforms, while visually interesting, are quite mysterious. Although today’s current designs are subdued (with muted black or brown stitching to be consistent with current camouflage schemes), they still employ sophisticated and intricate embroidery that formerly were lavished with brilliantly colored thread-work. Prior to the early 20th Century, other than rank insignia, army troops’ shoulders were plain.
During World War One, the 81st Division was the first to be authorized to employ a shoulder-affixed unit identification as they headed for France in 1918. The “Wildcats,” as the 81st was known, was the only U.S. Army division with permission for their personnel to wear patches on their uniforms during the war. With only a few short weeks remaining in the war, other units followed suit obtaining permission from General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to begin wearing patches on October 19, 1918. Soon, there would be an abundance of varying unit insignia with multiple variations of patches for the individual units.
Many of the WWI patches were constructed in-theater and were hand-made resulting, in some cases, with various representations on the same design. As a patch collector, this is both a point of frustration and enjoyment as they could spend years tracking down every known SSI-design instance.
As WWI veterans returned home, their ornately decorated uniforms drew the attention of would-be collectors and soon, the practice of stripping uniforms for their patches was born. It wasn’t uncommon for veterans to gift these patches to their children, giving birth to what would become one of the largest segments of militaria collecting, to this day.
Exercise caution (or seek advice of experienced collectors) prior to purchasing patches of this era. Considering the availability of period-correct wool flannel material, many of the World War 1 SSIs are easily reproduced and passed off to inexperienced collectors as authentic.
By the mid-1930s, collectors in upstate New York organized an exchange that would become the basis for The American Society of Military Insignia Collectors or ASMIC, one of the oldest organizations in the area of militaria collecting. With a resource such as ASMIC, collectors can draw from the knowledge of professional collectors as well as trade or purchase insignia.
In the years leading up to and during World War II, SSI were mass-produced and designs were standardized which meant that variations would be reduced. However, this did not eliminate variations altogether.
During the Viet Nam war, subdued patches were introduced for wear on combat uniforms providing additional variants of the same insignia. With the downsizing and restructuring of the Army, units have been decommissioned or combined resulting in fewer SSIs. When the U.S. Army transitioned to the Army Service Uniform (ASU), or dress blues, completely by October 1, 2015, the change all but eliminated the colorful patches as they are no longer worn on dress uniforms.
The only constant is change and uniform changes have been happening within the Army, Air Force and Navy in the past few years. Awaiting approval by
Will the Army do away with unit patches all together? Only time will tell.
I’ve said it so many times in the past: it is paramount to making wise purchases that collectors research an item prior to handing over hard-earned finances to make a purchase. However, there are occasions within militaria collecting where the collector is stumped by what he or she might be looking at, yet still feel compelled to pull the trigger on a deal to acquire it.
Recently, a very dear friend and fellow collector presented me one of his most recent acquisitions and wanted to get my input as to the markings and what they might indicate. He was stumped by some of the heraldry and details but there were other engraved elements that showed the piece to be from World War I.
I spent several minutes examining what appeared to be a trench art matchbox. Clearly, the item shown is constructed from brass and was handmade. The brass plates were rolled out and soldered together to form an oblong can-shape with another piece cut and soldered into place at the top. A piece of wood was shaped and fastened to comprise the case’s bottom, and adhered with some sort of clear glue or shellac. Judging from the length of the box, the brass was an unrolled and flattened small arms casings, a very common resource used in trench art making.
On one side, the maker tooled a pattern and left a smooth shield motif with what appears to be a monogram of the initials, “MB.” At the surrounding corners of the shield are “1914”,” 15”, “16” and “17” which clearly indicates the first few years of World War I.
Etched into the opposing side of the matchbox is what appears to be a crescent or “C” with the opening pointed upward. Inside the crescent are two wings – one, at the bottom, pointing to the left with the top one pointing to the right. Connecting the two wing tips is a heavy line running diagonally, right to left from the top to the bottom. All three pieces appear to form the letter “Z.” Superimposed over the diagonal line is a small numeral two. Over the top of this “winged Z” is appears the year, “1917.” To the top right is a star with radiant beams extending outward to all directions providing a backdrop design. The top panel is etched simply etched with “Champagne”, surrounded by tooled pattern.
I knew that the piece was from WWI and was potentially French or British in origin (it could even be German) due to the dates of the piece, as the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1917. Could the crescent indicate Arabic or Islamic participation? Could it be connected to the French Foreign Legion? Does “Champagne” refer to the battles that were fought in 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917?
Due to the sheer beauty of this piece, it has proven to be a very wise investment my friend made (at least in my opinion) regardless of his lack of certainty about it. This matchbox will be a fun and interesting research project. Perhaps one of you recognizes the emblems or has any ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
I recently noticed an online auction for a naval uniform item that was listed as a World War II U.S. Navy enlisted man’s jumper. For the seller, it appeared to have the same characteristics of other similarly listed uniforms so guiding him (or her) to describe it as being the same as those. This is very common occurrence with online listings. An unsuspecting buyer could easily pull the trigger on this listing, thinking they were purchasing the item as described. Imagine the disappointment when they will most certainly learn that what they brought home wasn’t U.S. Navy uniform, but rather it was a middy.
Middies as a fashion statement
A middy (or middy blouse) was part of a popular fashion trend of the late 19th Century that continued on up through World War I, bringing the styling of the naval uniform to civilian attire to women and children’s apparel. Designs incorporated the “sailor collar and flap” (complete with the piping stripes), neckerchief and in many examples, rating badges. To the untrained eye, the garments look no different from their authentic counterparts.
U.S. Naval enlisted uniforms vary through the ages
While the overall naval enlisted uniforms design (theme) has been relatively unchanged since the mid-1800s, they have in reality, gone through several subtle iterations, easily confusing novice or new collectors. Along with the uniform variations, the insignia have transitioned considerably compelling even experienced naval collectors to seek informative sources to discern one uniform or rate from another.
In addition to the variations between the different eras of naval uniform and rate designs (which includes the various rate insignia heraldry), individual customization can factor into the mix of uniform deviation. Naval personnel even to this day try to find ways to make their uniform uniquely theirs in an effort to define their appearance as an individual. These customizations may fly in the face of uniform regulations or tap dance in the grey area of with individual interpretation. Another contributing factor is the unique nature of ship’s commanding officers possessing the ability to relax or modify the regulations to fit their command style.
Several excellent publications are available that provide collectors with the ability to assess a uniform item and properly identify it…most of the time. Occasionally, uniform anomalies surface that clearly stand out and appear to deviate from the uniform regulations or known practices of the purported time period of the item. Fortunately, there are experts in online forums who are experienced with enough of the variances that can help to decipher the uniform attributes in an effort to guide the collector to the best conclusion as to the authenticity of the piece.Navy enlisted uniform basics – what to look for
I am certainly not an expert when it comes to navy uniforms however, through osmosis and reviewing the various reference materials, I am beginning to recognize the nuances and can provide some beginner-level guidance. If you’re just starting out with naval enlisted uniform collecting, I can provide some basic details on what to look for (I have included a few images from previous articles covering navy enlisted uniforms):
- Tags or labels
Check the garment for a label or tag as a method to determine when the uniform was constructed. This can also apply for tailor made items, but consultation with experts should be required in order to nail down the tailor and any comparative details that could be used.
- Rate insignia
John Stacey’s book, United States Navy Rating Badges, and Marks, 1833-2008: A History of Our Sailors’ Rate and Rating Insignia is an invaluable tool to decipher the lengthy list of variations with insignia. Mr. Stacey possesses many decades of documentation and research that includes having delved deep into the Navy’s archives of uniform regulations, uniform contracts, and design specifications. Collectors are continuously reaching out to him with their discoveries of anomalies, providing feedback to add to his research and to provide material for the many revisions his book has been subjected to.
- Distinguishing Marks
Modern enlisted uniforms no longer employ these specialty insignia as the rates and ratings are firmly developed and managed by naval regulations. As the Navy began to mature and place a significant amount of management of the enlisted ranks (contrary to the previous era of conscription), leadership started to institute systems to allow specialization for these men. With that came a need to allow for recognition for these sailors to display their shipboard role on their uniform. To gain a better understanding of why and when these were implemented, again, refer to Stacey’s book.
There are several types of materials that have been used throughout the years in the construction of enlisted navy uniforms. Keep in mind that there have been times when sailors would have multiple types of uniforms (blues, whites, undress, dress, working, etc.). Textile variants also play into determining the time-frame (heavy melton wool, weave, duck, canvas, etc.). If the collector is confused, consult the experts.
- Embroidery and stitching
Some early 20th century naval uniforms can be especially baffling. A few years ago, one in particular drew significant attention among collectors for its distinctive embellishments and custom embroidery. What was confusing (to a novice like me) was that every aspect of the uniform was so ornate and beautifully designed, unlike the conventional uniforms of the same period. Many collectors (including me) debated as to the authenticity and whether it was truly a uniform or perhaps a middy. As it turns out, it was a custom-tailored “liberty” uniform that is unauthorized for official wear, yet proudly worn ashore.
Research – a wise investment
Spending time to get familiar with some of these basics along with investing in reference materials will go a long way to prevent you from making costly mistakes. The flip-side of this situation is that educated buyers might even discover a piece that the seller has grossly undervalued (due to their own ignorance of naval uniform nuances) thereby providing the piece to be acquired at a bargain-basement price.
In the case of the seller with the middy eBay listing (mentioned above), I did make contact regarding the mistaken description for which I was politely thanked; the seller informing me that they would remove the auction and properly identify it when relisted.
Middy Rating Badges
In addition to the mis-identification of middy costumes and clothing as Navy uniforms, the rating badges that are stitched to the sleeves of these garments can also be improperly listed for sale online. To the unsuspecting or untrained eye, a middy badge could be seen as authentic. Middy rating insignia are often proportionally distorted from their authentic counterparts. In addition to the size variances (middies were made for children and women so their badges had to be smaller to be aesthetically appealing on smaller sleeves), the distinguishing marks are always sized disproportionately to the eagle and the chevrons. Also, pay attention to the way that the embroidery work was done. Most chevrons were sewn-on pieces of wool flannel (rather than directly embroidered to the base material).
Giving sellers the benefit of doubt, they may not be intentionally deceptive with their listings. I suspect that when they come across these badges, they truly believe that they are authentic and are merely adding them to their manifold-listings of online sales, not considering for a moment that the pieces are merely costume elements.
While reading a discussion on a militaria forum regarding a World War I veteran’s medal group (that at that time had recently been listed for sale by Bay State Militaria), I was reminded that so much in military collecting is out of reach for my budget. This particular collection of artifacts contained the Army officer’s decorations and medals which included the Distinguished Service Cross, Belgian Order of the Crown, Knights level, Belgian Croix de Guerre, three awards of the French Croix de Guerre, United States Silver Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal, Legion of Honor, Knights class and many other decorations. Not only was this group considerably out of my reach but I couldn’t even afford to purchase this soldier’s WWI Victory medal (which included ten clasps, documenting the battles he participated in) if it had been parted out. The group was listed for just under $6,800 and based upon the amount of history the buyer acquired (yes, it sold very shortly after it was listed), it was worth every penny.
The career of the veteran was not only significant during his time in uniform but in his work after he served. In reading his history-making accomplishments as noted, one could see why this grouping commanded such a high listing price:
- “This Officer was decorated while attached to the British during advanced Chemical Training in 1918. He then personally led the first American Chemical Weapons Attack in History as Company Commander of B Company, 1ST Gas and Flame Regiment.”
- “A very historic grouping with a famous painting of this Officer by Joseph Cummings Chase which is in itself a treasure. This portrait was one of 125 painted in France in 1918-19 by Joseph Cummings Chase. approximately 75 ended up in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. This is one of just a few known to be in Private Hands.”
This WWI Army officer’s (his name was not disclosed) group is purely museum quality as this officer also played a significant engineering role (during the interwar period) on New York’s George Washington Bridge and Holland Tunnel construction projects.
Meanwhile, back in the realm where I live (known to me simply as reality), my World War I collection consists of a few items that were affordable and have visual appeal. With my family serving in every American conflict dating back to the War for Independence, I try to locate objects that will display well and have some sort of connection to my family’s military heritage.
Two pieces that fit my criteria (as stated above) and met my budgetary constraints are these WWI-specific wool flannel pillow covers. As it turns out, their similar designs complement each other quite well and will look fantastic on my office wall.
Pillow covers were quite popular during World War II with most designs being simple silk-screened patterns or pictorials on silk material. Typically, these were gifts purchased by the service members and sent to family and sweethearts as reminders of the loved one away at war. During the war, these were mass-produced and can be acquired without severely crippling your collecting budget.
Commemorating a wide variety of subjects such as military branches of service, forts or military bases, ships or aircraft, pillow covers have been dated to the first few years of the twentieth century. The early examples tend to be constructed from a wool flannel with lettering and designs stitched to the face.
While the common designs of WWII (such as the more generic “Army” and “Navy” versions) will be plentiful and therefore inexpensive, the more ornate or specific they are, the price will be higher. With Navy ships of significance (such as the USS Arizona or Enterprise) expect to pay a premium.
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!