Throughout most of 2017 and continuing through nearly the remainder of this year, the people of this country are honoring the sacrifices made by Americans who answered the call to go Over There. More than a century has passed since Congress declared war on Germany (April 6, 1917) and the Central Powers (December 7, 1917). By Armistice Day (November 11, 1918) nearly five million Americans had served in the Great War; nearly 2.8 million of which had been deployed to Europe.
“GREAT War?? There’s nothing GREAT about WAR!”
When I saw this comment written out on a recent social media post that was focused upon honoring veterans who served and particularly those who gave their lives during what later became known as World War I, it struck me how little our society truly knows the conflicts that this nation participated in during our history. The author of the comment (that was intended to stir anger among that person’s crowd of similar-minded people) had no hesitation in demonstrating the sheer ignorance of the harsh realities of history, the reasons wars are fought (or ended) nor the personal sacrifices that are made. While striving to remain entirely devoid of the politics and gamesmanship of social media discussions, I chose to abstain from shedding light on the “Great” term or delving into the dictionary definitions and applications of the word itself.
Similarly, The Veterans Collection is apolitical as the intent here is to learn about the residue that has been left behind by military veterans following their service regardless of participation in a conflict or during peacetime. As I ponder the aforementioned angry commenter’s remarks, I am left wondering how that person arrived at such a thought. Is it due to the notion that governments (political leaders) are callous and uncaring about both the people within the opposition nation and their own servicemen and women (and their families) that they can, with ease and a pen, commission the deaths of human beings? Are we to believe also that those who put on a uniform (either voluntarily or by conscription) inherit such a mindset that to follow orders as they take the life of another person is done so without personal cost to themselves? While am in full agreement that there truly is nothing great about the damage and destructive results of war, I do not agree that all war is unjustified and without worthy cause.
The War to End All Wars began in Europe following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and quickly escalated as old alliances were enacted as sides were split and fighting escalated. As more nations joined the fight, the scope and scale of the fighting spread beyond Western Europe and became a war of global proportions. The First World War was monumental in technological advancement – humanity had new and more impressive tools with which to kill greater numbers and with considerable ease. The loss of life was considerable as was the damage and carnage inflicted upon those who survived the technological terrors. The expansive destruction to the geography, towns and cities was large-scale and very impressive.
- notably large in size;
- of a kind characterized by relative largeness;
- remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness;
- long continued
Greatness isn’t a celebratory or term of praise when paired with this massively devastating war. In roughly four years, more than 8,000,000 combat deaths (nearly five million of which were suffered by the Entente Powers (the allied forces which included France, United Kingdom and the Commonwealths as well as the United States) making the losses not just massive but considerably GREAT.
I don’t doubt that people stumbling upon a site such as this that proudly honors the legacy and sacrifice of those who served their nation through the preservation of military artifacts is viewed upon as the glorification of war. I have even been accused of such glorification solely due to me possessing items that were seized from the vanquished enemy by my uncle. No combat-seasoned veteran or currently serving service member that I have ever encountered was or is eager to enter into war. “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it,” though uttered by General Robert E. Lee upon witnessing the carnage the Confederates inflicted upon Union forces at Fredericksburg. No, I do not glorify war but rather, I am repulsed by it. However, it is necessary in the extreme times to confront extreme human ills. If the likes of the Third Reich and the murderous Imperial Japanese forces were unopposed and left to continue their destruction of millions of people, where would we be?
Yes, I collect artifacts of war. These pieces are not symbols of violence but instead, are pieces of history that help to illustrate the narratives of personal sacrifices made by millions of my countrymen up to and including my father, grandfather, uncles and many preceding generations. Within my collection are several pieces of militaria that originate from the Great War with most of them having been inherited or are associated with one my relatives who enlisted to fight Over There.
Two of my uncles – my paternal grandfather’s twin elder brothers – each concealed their age to enlist into the U.S. Armed Forces (one went into the Navy and the other as an artilleryman in the Army) at the ripe old age of 17. Two of my maternal great grandfathers also served during WWI. One of them, my great grandfather, first enlisted into the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) as a Private and was discharged several months later (he immediately enlisted into the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve and served the duration of the war, domestically). My 2x great grandfather enlisted into the CEF just 19 days shy of his 48th birthday. A housebuilder and carpenter by trade in both his hometown of Leicester, England and his adopted home of Victoria, BC, my great great grandfather volunteered for the Canadian Forestry Corps and was sent to Europe to fill the need for lumber (used as trench materials such as duckboards, shoring timbers, crates) in the war effort.
My WWI collection isn’t large by any stretch of the (my) imagination. In addition to the pieces that I inherited as part of my family’s military history, I have been adding pieces to enhance or to fill in where I notice gaps and to be able to create a better display when I have such an opportunity.
Other pieces of my WWI collections range from edged weapons, books and publications and many photographs. Some of the collection, besides my familial focus, has local a connection. I have been slowly gathering pieces that originate from navy warships that were named for local cities, features or were stationed at any of the naval bases, locally.
Over the next few weeks, I will begin pulling everything pertaining to the first world war, taking stock of each piece and preparing it for a few upcoming public displays. I need to determine how I want to arrange the pieces in order to allow the artifacts to tell a story, not of war and suffering but of personal sacrifice while recognizing the prices paid by so many Americans a century ago. My goal with my displays is to avoid the glorification of war while allowing viewers to leave with a slight taste of what others endured in order to secure and preserve our freedoms.
“What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!” – Robert E. Lee, December, 1862
The first global war was horrible and terrible and it was truly great in the human (and monetary) cost.
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!