Anyone can open a history book and become superficially familiar with names, dates, places, and events, but the greater drama of a historical event is often lost in the text of overly simplified or poorly conceived accounts. Thankfully, myriad relics survive from many of the most important and fascinating periods of history, and these objects tell many stories. World War I relics, for instance, relay a great deal about the social and cultural context of the war, and the day-to-day lives of those who lived through it.
The Great War, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, left the world with an abundance of original artifacts with fascinating origins and enduring stories. The stories behind WWI relics speak volumes, often giving voice to forgotten histories of those who passed away during the war. From these original WWI relics, which still exist today, it's possible to maintain a direct relationship with the past, even a dialogue.
All of these fascinating relics from WWI come straight from the collection of the author, who has taken great care to help preserve history. Read on to learn about crazy WWI relics and the fascinating history behind them.
The British Army SRD Rum Jar
In 1914, the industrialized nature of World War One forced the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to dig into trenches while keeping the Imperial German Army from advancing to Paris. As a result, munitions, supplies, and rations for soldiers had to be delivered to the front lines quickly and efficiently.
As part of a soldier's rations, a serving of rum was issued from the SRD jar. There are many anecdotes claiming the official meaning of SRD, though most historians agree it either stands for "Service, Ration, Depot" or "Service, Rum, Diluted." The jars were commercially manufactured by several companies before the Great War and purchased by the British War Department. Three sizes, and possibly a fourth, existed, and they were produced with a variety of ink stamps or impressed markings.
The infantry cherished the rum ration as a special treat to alleviate the horrifying conditions of trench warfare and monotony of soldiering in the harsh winters of Northern Europe. Officers recognized its value in calming the nerves of the soldiers before battle. Decades after the war ended, British and commonwealth soldiers have expressed jovial memories of these jars, which they came to call "Seldom Reaches Destination" and "Soon Runs Dry" because they were often stolen or "lost".
In addition to storing rum, these glazed ceramic jars were used to hold gasoline, printer's ink, medicine, gun cotton, and more. It's also possible some were even used as last resort explosives by being filled with TNT and shrapnel and fitted with an improvised fuse. To this day, French and Belgian farmers still occasionally find fragments of these jars while plowing fields.
100-Year-Old Identified British Soldier's Dog Tags
World War One was the first major conflict that saw the widespread use of identification tags for military personnel worn on the soldier's person.
In 1907, the British army began issuing single circular ID tags made of aluminum, but once the war began, the demand for metal increased, so vulcanized asbestos fiber tags were issued, first with a singular red circular tag, then, in 1916, green and red paired tags were issued.
The tags pictured are made from pressed fiber, and belonged to British soldier R. Sheppard, who served in the Buffs East Kent Regiment. The fighting unit traces its history to 1572, and was originally named Thomas Morgan's Company of Foot. Around the middle of the 17th century. it was given its nickname, 'The Buffs,' because its soldiers wore buckskin coats to distinguish themselves. Finally, in 1881, it was renamed the Buffs East Kent Regiment.
Also marked on these original tags are R. Sheppard's service number, 6481, and his religious identification, 'CE,' which means Church of England.
The most obvious feature of these identification tags is each tags is a different color and shape. The reason for this was grim, but practical. If a soldier was killed and the body recovered, the circular red tag was removed and added to those to be buried, while the green tag was left on the body in case it was discovered again. R. Sheppard survived WWI; the tags are still together, on the original lanyard.
Imperial Russian Romanov Dynasty Cap Insignia
The Russian Empire entered World War One dangerously unprepared for the drawn out war of attrition that would unfold. Prior to 1914, Tsar Nicholas II began a campaign to expand and modernize the military after the disastrous defeat of Russia by Imperial Japan in 1905.
Two years later, in 1907, the entire army was issued new olive and khaki uniforms that offered better concealment. In addition to tunics and trousers, soldiers were issued a model 1907 furazhka peaked wool cap with a simple metal badge bearing the Romanov Dynasty's black and orange colors. The example above, at left, is an original example. The woman on the right, a member of the emergency Women's Battalion of Death, wears the same insignia on her standard issue cap.
By the time of the Russian Revolution, in 1917, basic needs of the army weren't being met because of poor logistical handling by the government. Ultimately, the cap insignia above would be swept away as a hated symbol of the incompetent Romanov Dyansty. Despite this, the style of cap it was worn with would survive World War One, the Revolution, and would be used in various forms through the fall of the Soviet Union.
British Army Wool Puttees
The change in military uniform style and fit is often determined by changes in geographic location, style of combat, military budget and weapon technology.
The odd-looking leg wraps shown above at left and in the period photo at right are called puttees, coming from the Hindi root word "patti," meaning bandage. From the last quarter of the 19th century to the early days of World War Two they were worn as an integral component of the British army serving in India. By 1918, most armies across the world had adopted puttees as an affordable, easy-to-make alternative to more expensive long boots.
Puttees were worn to serve the same purpose long boots or gaiters provided, preventing rocks and dirt from getting into a soldier's shoes and causing foot injuries. Once low cut lace-up boots were put on, a pair of puttees would be wrapped from the top of the boot to just below the knee. They provided the soldier's legs and trouser bottoms with extra protection against brush, cold, and rain (made of wool, they were naturally water repellent). When not worn, puttees could be rolled up, like a bandage, and easily stored away without taking up much space.
The most well-known manufacturer of puttees during World War One was the wool company Fox Brothers Limited of Somerset, England, which has been in business since the 18th century. The original pair above were also manufactured by Fox Bros. in 1906.