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!
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!