Soldier Souvenirs of the Great War

Identity Tags

Us British folk love a good holiday souvenir, and though World Wars One and Two were certainly no minibreak, the drive to collect keepsakes and tokens seems to have been just as strong.

More often than not, the War was most men’s first venture out of the county, and for many, their first journey away from home. Whether to remind themselves of their travels, or to take home as gifts for loved ones, many soldiers found themselves picking up trinkets along the way. A poignant distraction from the horror of war, these unsung treasures come in numerous guises, and we look at five of the more common varieties below.

1. Identity Discs

Though each soldier had their own identity disc, there were an abundance of non-official identity discs or bracelets purchased during periods of war, at home and away. By 1915, soldiers were required to wear two tags, one red and one green. The red one was taken when a soldier’s death had been reported.

2. Parachutes

Soldiers might tea off a section of a parachute used in battle to keep. Sometimes parachutes would have bold markings, making them a real treat. This seems to have been an international trend. In a similar vein, the National World War I Museum at the Liberty Memorial has a section of fabric from a French Bomber depicting the mythical chimera, as pocketed by an American soldier.

3. Flowers

Recently a WW1 soldier’s notebook hit the headlines as it was discovered at chance to be filled with beautiful pressed flowers, and was put to auction. This soldier has pressed plants and flowers between the pages of his autograph book, sealing them in with a drop of wax. Many of the pages feature messages, signing off “From Bert”. Was this soldier creating a gift for his sweetheart back home?

4. Enemy Treasures  

In periods of relative peace, soldiers might swap with their enemy soldiers, to receive items like cigarettes, or perhaps small keepsakes. Small exchanges such of this might have been comforting, bringing little joys after periods of intense battle. In other less pleasant exchanges, soldiers would go and salvage goods from the bodies of dead Germans, returning with watches, razors, pictures, knives and other such objects.

5. Trench Art

To pass the long days and nights, some soldiers took to creating decorative items from what little materials they had, such as shell or bullet casings, carving detailed designs into the metal. Smaller treasures such as rings or knives might be made by soldiers, along with carvings of wood and bone.

And a bonus keepsake no one wanted to bring home…

Another common souvenir that was maybe not so welcome was the unwelcome presence of lice! Nestling into the folds of uniforms, fleas would bite and irritate soldiers. Scratching the bites would force the infected faeces of these pesky parasites into the wound and causing ‘Trench Fever’. Definitely not one to bring home to the wife!

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Written by Sarah Ashbridge

Office monkey by day, forensic archaeologist by night, Sarah Ashbridge is a jack-of-all-trades and the master of one: the forensic identification the War Dead. She trained originally as an Egyptologist, but interests in the history of death and burial saw her make the step into archaeology, completing an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation at the University of Bradford. Armed with an ever-increasing library of books, a handful of illustration pens and a brand new trowel, Sarah writes our regular #WWWednesday column, working towards her PhD in Forensic Archaeology.

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