Saturday, 26 January 2013

A brisk trade in the souvenirs of war

The real thing: a piece of Zeppelin wire
raises money for the Red Cross
The word 'souvenir' is one we tend to associate with holidays or other pleasureable events we want to remember, so I was quite surprised by how often it crops up in letters written home from the battlefont. It was not all uncommon for soldiers to collect souvenirs of war- in fact it was a very popular pastime.

'I was hoping we should soon be home on leave and bring all those lovely war souvenirs such as Prussian Guard helmets and even Austrian helmets,' wrote one Tommy from France in 1916. 'I was in possession of lots of nice things but we were told we had to charge a wood on a certain day and so I had to abandon everything.'

Any old iron: WW1 memento
- an Austrian helmet
Some soldiers made a business out of buying and selling sourvenirs, like this Canadian in 1917: 'I had a lovely Fritz revolver and case, an automatic which an Aussie had taken from a German officer. I bought it for 75 francs and sold it to one of our doctors for 100. I bought a German watch since for 10 francs. It had been hit with shrapnel twice but still goes, so I am going to keep it till "Apa la Guerre" (some French eh!) [he no doubt meant "Apres la guerre"].'

But by the end of the war, some solders had no desire for keepsakes, certainly not this soldier who wrote to his wife in October 1918: 'I have not collected any souvenirs, but I have the chance to have plenty, but they do not apeal to me and I have plenty of weight to carry as it is. There is a little religious emblem I picked up at the place where I am now, and thought Tommy [the soldier's young son] would like it, so I am putting it in with this letter and I also got a small Rosary, but I have seen some beauties...'

Some souvenirs could be a reminder of happy events (if they could be called that) or friendships made during adversity. Early in the war, British soldiers were almost mobbed when they arrived in Belgium to take on the invading Germans. 'We halted in one village for an hour and a half and when we left there was scarcely a badge or a button in the regiment, all gone as souvenirs. Good luck to the Belgians,' wrote one sergeant.

Meanwhile something similar was happening at hospitals in Britain, where wounded Belgian soldiers were befriending the nurses: 'All Belgians in our ward left for camp, very sad, gave us coins and buttons for souvenirs,' wrote one Red Cross nurse in her diary in 1914.

Thanks to Lorraine Judge in Australia for the Zeppelin souvenirs, above and top

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