What did a British Army soldier have with him while fighting in the trenches of the First World War? Here, Peter Doyle and Chris Foster take a close look at the weapons, tools, and keepsakes that were popular among frontline troops and the civilians they left at home during WWI.
The whistle has entered the mythology of the Great War. Most were made in Birmingham by the famous firm J Hudson & Co, manufacturer of the Metropolitan police whistle and its military versions since the mid-19th century. It was designed so that it could be held in the mouth, leaving the hands free, and at full blast its sound could carry for over a mile. Over half a million of these whistles were made during the Great War, with most of them stamped and dated. Their uses ranged from sounding an impending attack, warning of gas strikes, or signalling an incoming mortar round. The whistle would be attached by a lanyard or leather tab to a tunic button, or carried in one of the leather holders of a Sam Browne belt.
In Britain and abroad, soldiers found opportunities to send their loved ones bought or hand-made pieces of jewellery. At home, the use of uniform buttons was particularly popular. The standard uniform button worn by most soldiers bore the royal arms, and simple pin brooches made from two or more buttons were produced for the mass market of British soldiery, as well as more elaborate versions. Also distinctive, but perhaps more obscure, were small silver-and-glass pin brooches that contained the lover’s regimental colours. The example pictured bears the green-white-green ash of the Worcestershire Regiment. ‘Sweethearts’, as these pieces were known, were extremely popular throughout the war, and many other examples were created by soldier artisans as trench art, serving as reminders of informal activity along the frontline.
The clasp knife was one of the most important pieces of personal kit, used for a wide range of duties, from trench repair to eating. It measured about 5 inches in length, with a heavy 3.5-inch blade, and a black chequered horn grip (although other patterns are known, from brown horn to plain slab-steel sides). The majority of blades were fitted with a steel spike, traditionally used in ropework for teasing open strands or knots. They were also fitted with a tin-opener blade with a lug that would guide the blade around a ration tin. To prevent the knife from being lost, it was worn with its large copper loop attached to a sturdy string lanyard, invariably tied round the waist with the knife kept in a pocket.
Soldiers who had been wounded were permitted to wear a simple 2-inch strip of gold ‘Russian braid’, arranged vertically on their left forearm, which served to set them apart from raw recruits. They were an innovation of 1916, following a suggestion made by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that those who had been wounded should be recognised by some distinction. To receive a stripe, the soldier needed to be listed as ‘wounded’ in the casualty returns. A stripe would be worn for every instance of wounding, though not for each injury received. It was the hope among many soldiers that receiving the stripe would see them out the war and sent back home to Blighty, but in reality – after a brief period of convalescence – they would be returned to the front. Thus, it is not unusual to see soldiers wearing multiple stripes in images of the First World War.
Most British soldiers during the Great War were newly recruited to the colours. The British Army of 1914 stood at just 400,000; by the end of the war, it had expanded tenfold to some 4 million. It is inevitable that in the rich diversity of men making up the ranks there would be many who were superstitious. And when waving goodbye to their menfolk, relatives and sweethearts also put their trust in luck. In the early stages of the war, there were several commercially available charms to back up such beliefs. The act of ‘touching wood’ in order to avert future disasters is an ancient superstition, one to which many resorted after tempting fate. For this reason, the charm shown – ‘Tommy Touchwud’ – was equipped with a large wooden head, which could be touched whenever the owner needed reassurance.
Field dressings were standard issue to all soldiers, to be kept in the pocket under the front flap of the Service Dress tunic. The official Field Dressing was intended for rudimentary first aid, and was a packet containing two dressings – one for the entry wound and one for the exit wound. Early on, these pouches also contained safety pins and ampoules of iodine to treat the injury; later in the war, after the value of iodine had been questioned, it was left out of the set. With so many wounds being caused by shellfire, larger dressings were needed than could be carried by an individual, and special Shell Dressings were carried by regimental stretcher bearers. The official Field Service Regulations stated: ‘The First Field Dressing applied as a protection against dirt and to stop haemorrhage, with the addition of some support to a broken limb, before removal of the patient, is all that is needed on the field itself.’
By far the most important souvenirs of the frontline, collected by British soldiers in France and Flanders, were silk postcards. First produced in 1907, they gained popularity in 1915 after locals realised the sales potential of marketing the results of their labours to the troops. Some estimates suggest that as many as 10 million cards were produced during the war. Each was made as part of a cottage industry, in which mostly women embroidered intricate designs by hand onto strips of silk mesh, which were then sent to a factory where they were mounted as postcards and greetings cards. The cards were not cheap: a single card could cost up to three times the daily pay of an average soldier. There was a vast range of themes, ranging from friendship, birthday greetings, and ‘home sweet home’, to poignant messages from the trenches. The favourites among soldiers, however, were cards that showed regimental crests.
The issue of a rum ration in the armed forces was a British institution. Service rum was thick and fiery, and issued in ceramic jars labelled or impressed ‘SRD’. The jars were made by several potteries, with Doulton of Lambeth and Pearson & Co being among the most prolific. In the trenches, rum was issued at dawn and dusk, its warming effect intended to increase the men’s morale in the miserable conditions. It was also issued to men about to go ‘over the bags’, either at dawn with a large-scale attack, or at night prior to a raid. Because drunkenness was a serious offence, the ration could not be kept and saved for later. Instead, it was poured into a mess tin and had to be consumed in the presence of an officer. It was believed that one of the perks of being a sergeant was having a claim to any rum residue left in the jugs after rations were issued. Other than the rum, soldiers were not entitled to alcohol in the trenches.
As the complexity of barbed-wire labyrinths intensified, so too did the need to cut through it efficiently. One’s own wire was almost as hazardous as that of the enemy, with special paths having to be cut through the tangled maze. To cut the enemy’s wire was a dangerous business – attached to empty tin cans, it would clatter loudly if anyone touched it. Early cutters were inadequate, despite have been tested at the Royal Engineers’ experimental trench workshops. The long-handled versions made from 1917 by Chater Lea were more satisfactory, but actually using them was still fraught with difficulty. Wire-cutter attachments were also fixed to the muzzles of SMLE rifles. Given the great tangles encountered, these cutters were never a practical proposition in the field. In many cases, cutting the wire was left to the artillery – a skilled business, given that the shrapnel-burst had to be at the correct height to have the desired effect.
This article features in issue 45 of Military History Monthly.
All images and text from:
What Tommy Took to War, 1914-1918
Peter Doyle and Chris Foster