Objects that defined the Great War

By Peter Doyle

World War I left us with a legion of tales that still resonate a century on. Peter Doyle investigates.

A soldier from the Grenadier Guards wearing a trench coat that became standard issue for memberso fthe British Army in World War I.
A soldier from the Grenadier Guards wearing a trench coat that became standard issue for memberso fthe British Army in World War I.

Trench coat
Country of origin: United Kingdom
Date of manufacture: c.1917

The trench coat we know today is very much a fashion statement. Stylish and unisex, it has been seen in all cuts and colours. Not surprisingly, its military antecedents were usually light khaki in shade to blend into the battlefield and were born out of the need to provide protection to the wearer who, more often than not, would be occupying a hole in the ground open to the elements.

The standard cold-weather protection issued to soldiers was the greatcoat, or capote in France. Constructed from wool serge, they were a considerable weight, even when dry.

Trench coats were thus in growing demand among soldiers. The best were focused on trench use: the coat should be made of heavy-duty waterproofed gabardine (and should be capable of hosting a warmer button-in liner), and it should not be so long as to be obstructive. A garment made by London outfitters Thresher & Glennie, that was the property of a lieutenant in the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, was typical.

He bought it in 1917 and adorned it with rank badges and formation signs. We know from contemporary adverts that the coat cost 4 14s 6d.

It is double-breasted, with a storm-flap whose purpose was to keep out the cold and wet (which in its descendants is now little more than a vestige). Belts at the waist and wrists provide means of closing off the coat from the elements, while at the throat an additional buttoned strap gives the chance to cinch the collars together, thereby resisting both the elements and gas attacks, with gas hoods being tucked into outer garments to provide a more effective seal.

A real example of a military necessity with an impact on modern life.

Country of origin: Germany
Date of manufacture: c.1915

In 1914, all armies were equipped with some form of uniform cap or ceremonial helmet, but it is perhaps the German helm mit spitze, popularly known as the pickelhaube, that is the pre-eminent example: gaudy, impractical and affording little protection from either the elements or shell fragments and bullets, this headdress was adopted in 1842, reputedly the design of Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia.The basic component of the German 1895-pattern pickelhaube was a glossy, hardened-leather helmet shell, covered with layers of lacquer for a high shine, with leather front peak and neck guard sewn on. The shell was then furnished with bright brass fittings, the spike complete with ventilation holes. Artillerymen wore a ball representing the cannonball. Both had a mostly ceremonial leather chinstrap and a pair of cockades sporting the national and state colours. To protect it, and reduce its visibility, a cloth cover was created for field use. The helmet was expensive to make, complex and used many important war materials. Its production became unsustainable.

By June 1915, gone were the shiny brass fittings, a metal much in demand by the munitions industry. In their place were oxidised steel fittings cheaper to produce and less visible. The spike was also removable. On the front line, the pickelhaube was the natural target of souvenir hunters. Its alien appearance also made it the target of Allied propaganda, and the helmet appeared in images intended to invoke national hatred. It was replaced in 1916 by the steel helmet, and deaths from head wounds declined dramatically. With the passing of the pickelhaube came the birth of industrialised warfare; there was little room for the ceremonial in the killing fields of Flanders.

Propaganda Cross
Country of origin: United Kingdom
Date of manufacture: c.1914/15

In 1914, as the invading German Army swept through Belgium and northern France towards Paris, suspected acts of terrorism were dealt with severely. Where shots had been heard from buildings, occupants were summarily executed, their homes burned. In all, it is estimated that 6000 Belgian civilians were killed and 25,000 buildings destroyed. Notable cultural centres were bombarded in northern France, too; at Reims and Amiens, the great gothic cathedrals were badly damaged.

In the wake of these actions, the Allied propaganda machine moved into gear. Lurid tales of murder, mutilation and sexual depravity were commonplace, and the invasion of Belgium was transformed into the Rape of Belgium.

One result was the production of cast-iron propaganda Iron Crosses. With both iron and the Iron Cross symbolising purity and chivalry in German culture, it was inevitable this medal would be selected as a means of ridiculing the enemy. The most common examples depict the cross with the words For Kultur. Kultur was a concept of German supremacy in the arts and civilisation. It was not surprising that the Allied propagandists quickly seized on this and depicted jack-booted madmen striding across Europe, all For Kultur.

Some of the crosses simply state, with heavily ironic overtones, For Brave Deeds, while others list the cultural sites damaged by the invasion: Leuven, Reims, Amiens. Later additions even reflect the naval bombardment of the northeast coast of England in late 1914. Who produced the crosses is unknown; perhaps Gordon Selfridge, later responsible for the Lusitania medal, which satirised the German sinking of the ocean liner.

The Loos football
Country of origin: United Kingdom
Date of manufacture: c.1915

The Battle of Loos, fought in September 1915, was the largest British offensive on the Western Front. Yet neither the British commander-in-chief, Sir John French, nor the general in charge of the attack, Sir Douglas Haig, wanted to fight there: the ground was poor and the German positions in fortified mining villages and slag heaps too strong. Yet with the Allied strategic situation poor and the Russians on the point of collapse, the need to support the French was paramount. The British commanders had little choice but to attack where their line met that of their allies, just to the north of Lens.

The Loos football.
The Loos football.

The men of the London Irish Rifles, at the left of the 47th Division line, would be first out of the trenches. The battalion was famous for footballing prowess, so it was perhaps not surprising that their entry into the great push would involve kicking leather footballs towards the German trenches. While this was officially frowned upon, one man, Private Edwards, would nevertheless carry a deflated ball into the line; inflating it before zero hour, he would launch the ball with a goalkeeper's throw, punting it towards the line while his colleagues followed it up.

The London Irish would soon drive the Germans from the line. The football had reached its objective; hanging on the German wire, it would eventually find its way back home to the regimental depot.

The Man of Loos is a bronze statue on the war memorial of the London Irish Rifles, depicting a soldier in 1915 garb, holding a football. More remarkable is the preservation of the ball itself. Last seen as a deflated leather bag on the German wire, it survived to become a celebrated relic of the Rifles' involvement in the battle.

Immelmann: Meine Kampffluge
Country of origin: Germany
Date of printing: 1917

The cult of the fighter ace was followed by most nations, the heroic exploits of these airmen an antidote to the dull grind of trench warfare. Max Immelmann was one of the first, and his book, Immelmann, Meine Kampffluge (My Combat Flights) was published in 1917, a year after his death, containing a view of the famous airman as reflected in his letters home. The strong visual imagery of the German eagle flying over the city of Lille in silhouette is typical of German poster design from the war.

Fighter Ace Max Immelmann and a book of his letters.
Fighter Ace Max Immelmann and a book of his letters.

Immelmann's fortunes soared in the summer of 1915, when Anthony Fokker delivered two monoplanes to his squadron. Equipped with an interrupter gear that prevented the forward-facing machine guns from destroying the propeller, it allowed the German ace to aim the whole aircraft at its target. He described his victory against Lieutenant William Reid of the Royal Flying Corps thus: "I tried to keep my machine above my opponents, because no biplane can shoot straight up. After firing 450 to 500 shots in the course of a flight which lasted eight to 10 minutes, I saw the enemy go down in a steep glide. When I saw him land, I went down beside him. I went up to him, I shook hands and said: Bonjour, monsieur. But he answered in English."

Immelmann had another 16 combat successes before his death. The Fokker scourge was eventually answered by British aircraft with an unrivalled field of view - pusher aircraft such as the de Havilland DH2, which featured a propeller behind the pilot's cockpit. Immelmann died on June 18, 1916, while attacking British pushers, his Fokker destroyed in the air. Whether it was by artillery, the bullets of his foes or even his own malfunctioning interrupter gear is difficult to ascertain, but his reputation as a tactician lives on through the Immelmann turn - a simultaneous loop and roll that allows pilots to both evade and attack pursuing aircraft. His loss marked the move from aerial chivalry to the melee of dog fights.

Tank mask
Country of origin: United Kingdom
Date of manufacture: c.1915/18

The tank, a British invention of 1915, was designed to cross trenches at least 2.62m wide (and climb obstacles of 1.40m high), thereby puncturing the German lines.

Protective mask for tank crew.
Protective mask for tank crew.

Its characteristic rhombic shape was designed to give as great a surface area as possible to the tracks so they might both cross open trenches and climb gradients. The Mark I was deployed for the first time in the latter stages of the Somme. The tank was to evolve during the war, increasing its reliability, the Mark IV being the main battle tank of the later period. It was deployed in two basic forms, with 6-inch guns and with Lewis or Hotchkiss machine guns arming sidemounted sponsons. Both forms, travelling at an average speed of 4mph, were vulnerable to shellfire.

Each tank had a crew of eight: commander and driver, two gunners and four men to command the complex gears that were required to drive what was essentially a steel box.

The tanks were hot, crowded and dangerous, with plenty of protruding metalwork that could lead to a man knocking himself unconscious in action. To combat this, tank crews were issued with leather helmets to protect their cranium, and chain-mail masks to protect their faces and eyes. The mask was tied around the face, the metal and leather visor bent into position to protect the eyes and nose, and the chain mail hanging from it to protect the cheeks and face. The purpose of the mask was to prevent shards of metal flying into the face, these shards being an inevitable consequence of bullet strikes on the outside of the tank. Neither the helmet nor the mask were particularly welcomed by the crews: wearing them must have been uncomfortable in the hot, cramped compartment.

* This is an edited extract from The First World War in 100 Objects by Peter Doyle (History Press)

- Independent

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