First World War Galleries Table of contents

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Neutral no longer!

Neutral no longer! America the friend and the ally.

Elizabeth Banks, an American living in London, April 1917

In 1917 disastrous German decisions provoked American anger and changed the course of the war.
Although the USA was neutral, American businesses had acted as bankers and suppliers to Britain and its allies.
Americans were furious at German submarines sinking their ships and killing their citizens. For the US government, the last straw was a German plot to gain Mexico as an ally in case of war with the United States. On 6 April 1917 America declared war on Germany.
What did this mean for the Allies?
The Allied nations rejoiced. They could be certain of American financial and military backing.
But while America had a large navy, its army would not be ready to fight in Europe for over a year.

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Zimmermann telegrams

On 19 January 1917 German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann sent a coded telegram – shown here in facsimile - to Germany’s ambassador to Mexico.
Intercepted by British Naval Intelligence, the document revealed a German plan for Mexico to take Germany’s side in the event of war with America. Mexico would then receive US territory. For neutral America it was the final straw and on 6 April it declared war on Germany.
Recruitment posters

Enlist’: this 1917 American recruitment poster called upon men to enlist and avenge the May 1915 sinking of the liner Lusitania by a German submarine. 128 Americans were drowned but, despite the outrage, America’s people had not wanted war in 1915.

However, two years later, provoked by the unrestricted German U-boat campaign and the Zimmermann telegram, the mood had changed.
Newspaper report

This newspaper reports US President Woodrow Wilson’s speech to Congress on 2 April 1917.
Wilson argued that the United States should fight on the side of the Allies to make the world ‘safe for democracy’ and ‘bring peace and safety to all nations’.
Four days later, with overwhelming backing from Congress, America declared war on Germany.
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President Wilson reads his ‘War Message’ to Congress, 2 April 1917

Posters and photos

In 1917 the United States, encouraged by posters such as those shown here, saw an enthusiasm for war like that seen in Europe three years earlier.
There was an initial rush of volunteers, although the majority of US troops would be conscripted.
The enthusiasm for war was not shared by 8 million US citizens of German descent nor many in an Irish community over 4 million strong.
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Volunteers at a US Marines recruiting office

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10,000 US soldiers form a Stars and Stripes ‘flag’

Songsheet and photo

American troops were not just soldiers like British ‘Tommies’. They were ‘Crusaders’, according to this songsheet.
The photograph shows crowds cheering ‘Doughboys’ - as American soldiers were known - in London. The immediate effect of US entry into the war was not military but economic. Britain and France’s credit in the US had fast been running out. Now they were saved from bankruptcy and could continue to borrow.
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American soldiers marching down Piccadilly, London

American flag

An officer of the British destroyer HMS Parthian was given this Stars and Stripes ensign by American naval officers.

Parthian met American destroyers and led them into Queenstown (now Cobh) harbour, Ireland, on 13 May 1917.
The 13 stars on the ensign represent the original states that declared their independence from Britain in 1776 and formed the United States of America.
King’s letter

King George V’s letter, given to each American soldier when he arrived in Britain, captured the prevailing mood.

The Allies were hugely relieved at US entry into the war and celebrated the arrival of the first American troops.
With the United States at the Allies’ side, the ‘great battle for human freedom’ would surely be won.

10.Life at the Front

Life for a front line soldier could be tense and terrifying. But it was mainly horribly uncomfortable and dreary.

On the Western Front British troops spent more time behind the lines than they did in forward trenches. Wherever they were, it was the small things in life that mattered to most soldiers. Grumbling about food, the weather and their comrades’ annoying habits were daily rituals.
Simple pleasures were also important: friendships, football matches and cigarettes. Although a tiny cog in a vast army machine, each soldier had his own unique experience of this war.

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Officers were responsible for the lives of their men.
Brave, fair leaders earned real devotion. Incompetent or bullying officers were hated. Soldiers had daily contact with junior officers, but rarely, if ever, with a general.
Officers, with their distinctive uniforms, were easy targets for German snipers and twice as likely to be killed as their men.
In 1914, most officers were drawn from Britain’s public schools and universities. But as casualty rates increased, the Army had to cast the net more widely.
Service Dress

Officers received an allowance to buy their own uniforms and, if they paid more, could buy items of superior quality.
This Service Dress jacket was worn by a lieutenant in the Sherwood Foresters. The three chevrons on the right sleeve mark three years’ overseas service. The stripe on the left indicates that he had been wounded.
But in battle officers frequently wore the same style of tunic as lower ranks to make themselves less conspicuous to the enemy.
Trench cap

The officer’s ‘trench cap’ was better tailored than those worn by the lower ranks
Sam Browne belt and leather boots

Only officers wore the leather Sam Browne belt and cross-brace. But an Army Order of January 1915 instructed them to wear canvas webbing, like their men, to avoid attracting the attention of German snipers. By 1917 one officer complained about other officers wearing ‘Tommies’ uniforms ‘as a sort of disguise…it is a sad departure’. Many officers replaced their specially made leather boots with more practical footwear.

Uniform, equipment catalogue and revolver

The uniform and equipment catalogue was printed by Thresher & Glenny in London, one of many approved regimental tailors which made officers’ uniforms.
Officers might also buy their own weapons and personalise them. Major Frederick Chesnutt-Chesney had his name inscribed on this Webley revolver.
Straight tips for ‘subs’

Straight Tips for ‘Subs’ reminded the Second Lieutenant, or subaltern, that he was a mere ‘blot on the earth’ until he proved himself.
One tip is that he should ‘assume the attitude of the new boy at school’. Many inexperienced officers, often teenagers, relied on their battle-hardened non-commissioned officers, the corporals and sergeants, to coach them in the ways of trench fighting and army life.
Cane and whistle

Many officers carried a cane.
Such items were not army issue and came in many designs. Lieutenant Colonel James Jack wrote, 'My officers…must be an example to their men in every respect…Proper officers' canes, a present from me, have replaced on parade a miscellaneous collection of walking sticks.’
Far more practical was a whistle, which officers used to give the order to go ‘over the top’.
Typed note

This typed note records the court-martial for desertion of Corporal Herbert Smith. Over 3,000 British and Empire soldiers were sentenced to death during the war for offences including desertion, cowardice, rape, mutiny and murder. Most death sentences were commuted to hard labour or prison but more than 300 men were executed. Corporal Smith was sentenced to ten years’ prison, but was sent back into battle and killed just weeks later.

Précis of Military Law and King’s Regulations’

This ‘Précis of Military Law and King’s Regulations’ simplified a bewildering array of army rules. An officer could punish a minor offence, like failing to salute properly, with extra work duties. But he might have to request a court-martial for a more serious offence like drunkenness. If found guilty, an offender could lose leave or pay, be imprisoned or be tied to a gun, in disgrace, during daylight hours.

Pocket knife

The pocket knife, with its handy tobacco pipe-cleaner and tin opener, was a must-have gadget


The wristwatch, easier to glance at than the pocket watch, became popular with officers and men alike

Letter writing case

Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Heneker kept his own leather writing case with him in France. Every British officer was allowed up to 35 kilos of personal items with him at the Front. He also had a soldier servant, known as a ‘batman’, to clean and cook for him. Heneker was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme while commanding a battalion of the Tyneside Scottish. His writing case was returned to his family, along with his other possessions.

Greatcoat and steel helmet

This greatcoat for mounted troops was warm, but not waterproof. It became heavy and almost unwearable when soaked. Soldiers often resorted to using rubberised groundsheets as capes to keep out the rain. The steel helmet - worn by all soldiers from late 1915 - was cumbersome to wear, but a lifesaver. Men in the front line were ordered to wear their ‘tin hat’ at all times.
Handwritten list of names

The British Army’s ranks teemed with men from all walks of life. This handwritten list of names of men in the 2nd Durham Light Infantry records the peacetime jobs its soldiers had left behind. Butchers, artists, tea-tasters, jewellers, hairdressers, clerks and journalists were thrown together to live and fight alongside each other.

Canvas webbing

The British soldier on the march carried his life with him, much of it in a haversack and attached to his canvas webbing. Full kit, including rifle, ammunition, entrenching tool and food rations, weighed around half the average man. One corporal described it as ‘a cruel, unnatural weight that no man should be forced to carry’. But webbing helped to spread the weight evenly.

Field boots and socks

Around 40 million regulation field boots were issued to British soldiers during the war. Boots were usually adequately comfortable on the march, But in the trenches, although boots were covered with waxy, water-resistant ‘dubbin’, men often suffered from ‘trench foot’ caused by prolonged immersion of feet in cold water and mud. Regular changes of socks and rubbing feet with whale oil helped to prevent this painful condition.

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The ‘Tommies’ of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ fought, slept, ate and lived crammed together.
They were united by loyalty to their battalion, or ‘mob’, and by deep friendships forged in the stress of the trenches and battle.
Common enemies also united them – not only the Germans, but also unpopular officers and men in safe jobs behind the front lines.
Lee-Enfield rifle

A British soldier’s Lee-Enfield rifle was his constant companion. It was a precision instrument and mud could easily clog up its mechanism. Military regulations required a soldier to clean his rifle every day, and to take great care of it so that it fired when necessary.

Sewing kit

Every soldier had a sewing kit - known as a ‘housewife’ – to repair worn uniforms

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In the front line, repairing trenches and barbed wire and moving supplies were constant chores.

Such work was usually carried out under the cover of night, sometimes under fire. Behind the lines, ‘rest’ could mean the very opposite, with an exhausting, dreary schedule of ‘working parties’ and ‘fatigues’, perhaps unloading ammunition or cleaning billets.
There was real resentment towards men in jobs far behind the lines, often regarded as lazy ‘lead swingers’ by the front line troops.
Reports, messages, memos and maps

For all officers, reading and writing reports, messages and memos and poring over maps were a key part of daily routine

Shovel and canvas bucket

The British ‘Tommy’ was both labourer and soldier.
The ‘Shovel GS’ was as valuable as his rifle. It was used for digging trenches, dugouts, gun pits, munitions dumps and latrine pits. Over time many soldiers’ hands have buffed the handle of this shovel smooth.
Artillerymen also endured tough labour. The canvas bucket had many uses, among them pouring water on to guns that had overheated after repeated firing.
Trench lantern

The trenches came alive at night as both sides used the cover of darkness to repair their trenches, send out patrols and bring up supplies. The trench lantern gave out little light, so the enemy would be less likely to detect work being carried out.

Carved dragon

This dragon was carved by a member of the Chinese Labour Corps. Nearly 100,000 Chinese labourers were employed by the British to perform vital tasks on the Western Front such as unloading ships, building dugouts, repairing roads and railways, digging trenches and filling sandbags. Other labour units were recruited across the Empire. They included Egyptians, Maltese, black South Africans and West Indians.

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Food in the trenches was basic but, at least in theory, filling. Rations consisted of meat - usually tinned - and vegetables, fatty bacon, cheese, jam, tea, bread, tobacco and a tot of rum. Troops were supposed to receive one hot meal a day. But front line soldiers sometimes went hungry because ration parties were unable to reach them under shellfire. Parcels from home, eating cooked meals behind the lines and ‘scrounged’ treats helped to liven up the diet.


Food did not always mean army rations, especially for officers.
Behind the lines, special occasions were often marked by celebratory meals as these menus show. French householders also cooked for officer-lodgers. Wealthier officers sent for expensive hampers from home, one noting that, ‘after seven days bully beef, we felt we must have lobsters and white wine’.
Water bottle

In a front line trench the contents of this water bottle would have tasted revolting.
Drinking water was brought up in petrol cans. It was then purified with chemicals.
There were often shortages of water, so boiling filthy water found in shell holes might be the only way to quench thirst. Drinking from dirty puddles led to diarrhoea and outbreaks of dysentery among British troops.
Rum jar

In the trenches the rum jar was a welcome sight.
Every day an officer poured out a morale-boosting tot of fiery rum to each of his men.
In periods of action the rum ration did not always reach the front line. Soldiers griped that ‘SRD’ stood not for Supply Ration Depot, but instead for ‘Soon Runs Dry’, ‘Service Rum Diluted’ or ‘Seldom Reaches Destination’.
Tinned food

Tinned food was a staple of the British soldier’s diet, whichever front he was fighting on.

The tins shown here include ‘Maconochie’, a thin stew containing more vegetable than meat, and pork and beans. Both were a welcome change from tinned corned ‘bully beef’.
The army diet, lacking fresh vegetables and fruit, made painful skin conditions such as boils worse. For variety, soldiers often scrounged from local orchards and vegetable plots.
Iron rations

Troops carried emergency ‘iron rations’ to last one or two days if they were on the attack, or if a ration party could not bring up food because of shellfire.
Iron rations consisted of army biscuits, a tin of ‘bully beef’, sugar and tea. The ‘hard tack’ biscuits could crack teeth if not first soaked or pulverised with a rifle butt.
It was strictly forbidden to eat iron rations without permission.
Mess kit

Army issue mess kit from which every British soldier ate his rations, with clasp knife

Cooking stove

Some officers had a small cooking stove to fry bacon and boil water.
This one was used by Lieutenant Colonel Montagu Cleeve on the Western Front.
Cooking in the front line was forbidden. It sent up tell-tale spirals of smoke which might attract snipers and shellfire.
Even so, soldiers improvised braziers from buckets and used tins and candles to heat food and water.

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Soldiers battled their environment as well as shells and bullets.
Trench warfare created miseries like ‘trench foot’, a painful condition caused by permanently damp feet and ‘trench fever’, symptoms of which were like ‘flu. On other fronts troops fought diseases such as malaria and sand fly fever.
During the war over 6 million British and Empire soldiers were treated for sickness. Fewer than one per cent of them died. Without improvements in sanitation and medical care, the figure would have been far higher.
Latrines plan

Toilets’ came in the form of latrines sited around the trench network.

This latrines plan shows how to make them. Soldiers heading to answer the call of nature were a target for German snipers and some men preferred to relieve themselves illicitly in empty tin cans, old helmets or shell holes. Toilet paper - ‘bumf’ - was usually newspaper or old rags. The job of cleaning and emptying latrines fell to the much mocked ‘sanitary men’.

Soldiers often brought medicines from home or received them in parcels.
Remedies included cocaine, then legal, ‘for tickling cough’, and extract of opium for stomach troubles. Gelatine lamels, dissolved on the tongue or in drinking water, were used for the relief of common minor ailments.
On receiving a packet of them, a lieutenant at Gallipoli wrote, ‘It cost twenty-seven shillings – and under present circumstances worth ten times the money.’
Trenchman belt and fly swat

The privately purchased ‘Trenchman belt’ was supposed to protect the wearer against lice. It did not. These tiny insects infested clothing, irritated skin and caused ‘trench fever’ and typhus. Men in the trenches killed lice by ‘chatting’ - crushing them between finger nails - or burning them out with cigarette ends and candles. The British Army issue fly swat gave men fleeting respite from the swarms of the ‘perfect pest’.

Puttees, waders and a sketch

Soldiers wore cloth puttees, wound around the lower leg, to protect against the elements Waders were issued to men in flooded trenches. A grateful Lieutenant Maurice Vyvyan drew a sketch to show off the new officers’ trench boots which would make his life more comfortable.

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In winter soldiers in the trenches were plagued by sore throats, common colds, ‘flu and vomiting.
Whatever the season, they suffered from exhaustion, constipation or diarrhoea, skin rashes, boils and sores. Commanders, fearing a mad rush to the rear, were reluctant to allow too many men to seek medical treatment. Medical officers sometimes accused seriously ill men of being ‘trench shy’.
Everyone was encouraged to keep clean to help prevent disease. But in the trenches this was almost impossible.
Shaving kit

A soldier needed his shaving kit, not only to keep well turned out in accordance with army regulations but also to keep up his spirits.
Officers lectured men on the importance of cleanliness. Yet in the trenches everybody became dirty whatever their rank.
Only in communal baths behind the front lines could soldiers get rid of the smell and layers of grime.
Until 1916, it was theoretically an offence for a soldier not to sport a tidy moustache.
Kilt cover

The kilt cover or kilt apron was used to camouflage the distinctive patterns of kilts worn by many Scottish, colonial and some Irish troops. It protected kilts from rain, which made them heavy and soggy. In freezing weather the apron prevented the stiffened wool hems from cutting deep into the men’s legs. Kilt covers did not prevent lice from breeding in the warm folds of the kilt underneath.


The British Army issued various types of jerkin to keep soldiers warm.
Some, like this one, were made of sheepskin. Others, according to one soldier, were made from ‘animals unknown to zoology’.
To avoid confusion, the Army had to issue an order stating that the ‘proper’ way to wear them was with the fur outside to ‘throw off water’. The revolting smell of damp, animal-skin jerkins led soldiers to call them 'stinkers'.
The ‘Gor blimey’ cap, with its ear flaps, and the cap comforter gave soldiers respite from the cold

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Soldiers on all sides were liable to shoot surrendering enemy troops in the heat of battle.
Those soldiers who gave themselves up and made it to prisoner of war camps could consider themselves fortunate. International agreements meant that they could usually expect more reasonable treatment than in previous wars. Yet conditions in POW camps were still primitive.
Men had no idea how long they would have to endure the drab, tough POW existence.
Sign for German POWs

This sign is for a prisoner cage used to hold newly captured German prisoners of war before they could be sent to POW camps.
By the end of 1917 there were 120,000 German prisoners in 142 camps across Britain. Prisoners were a valuable source of information. This Arabic-English-Turkish phrase book gives a set list of questions to be used by British Intelligence officers in the Middle East.
Escape aids

These escape aids were sent to prisoner of war (POW) Captain Jack Shaw in regular food parcels from his mother. They were devised by British Intelligence. The hollowed-out brush contained a map of the area around the Holzminden POW camp in Germany. The tin of meat held more maps, wire-cutters and compasses with a weight so that it would not appear suspiciously light. The war ended before Shaw could make his escape bid.

Golden Syrup mug, black bread and diary

This mug was made from a tin of syrup at the Sennelager POW camp in Germany by MJ Andrews of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Captured in August 1914, he was one of the first of some 190,000 British and Empire soldiers to be taken prisoner over the course of the war. The black bread was issued in 1918 to another POW, Corporal AB Wilson, in the Cottbus camp. He recorded the rations he received in his diary.

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The number of soldiers killed in the First World War is shocking.
But many more British and Empire troops would have died had the chain of medical services not become increasingly efficient. Medical teams had to get wounded men fit and fighting again. They were backed by constant research into shock, blood loss and infection.
Knowing that they would get expert treatment if wounded was an important factor in keeping up the morale not only of soldiers, but also of their families at home.
Bullets and shell fragments

The soldiers whose bodies these bullets and shell fragments ripped into kept them as mementos of their escapes from death.
Any wound could prove fatal if an infection such as gangrene set in. But the speed and sophistication of medical treatment improved and numbers of infection cases decreased dramatically by 1918.
Regimental aid post

The Regimental Aid Post, usually in a ruined building or dugout, was the first link in the chain of treatment for a wounded soldier.
Some men who had ‘copped a packet’ walked or limped there. Others were brought in by comrades or by stretcher bearers. Their wounds were then assessed. For the more seriously wounded, speed of treatment was essential if they were to survive.
By 1916 front line Casualty Clearing Stations could carry out most surgical procedures.
Surgical forceps

X-rays enabled doctors quickly to locate bullets or shell fragments inside a casualty.
These surgical forceps were then used to extract them.
By 1918 another new procedure, transfusion from stored blood, vastly improved the survival rate of patients suffering from blood loss and shock.
Medical cards

These medical cards were attached to a soldier being treated for a bullet wound at a General Hospital at Etaples, France, and to another with trench fever being shipped to Britain.
Soldiers dreamed of a ‘cushy’ illness or a ‘Blighty wound’, which was neither life-threatening nor debilitating, but meant they had to be sent home to be treated and to recover.
Stretcher and haversack

Four stretcher bearers were usually needed to carry one stretcher with a seriously wounded man on it.
Royal Army Medical Corps ‘body snatchers’, as bearers were sometimes called, each carried a haversack containing a ‘shell dressing’ and iodine.
They treated stricken men on the battlefield before taking them to safety, often under fire and over muddy, cratered ground.

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Violent death on such a vast scale brought with it many ethical and practical issues.
Shattered bodies had to be identified, graves had to be marked, families had to be informed and comforted. A soldier’s death could have a devastating effect on his grieving comrades.
British soldier John Priestley wrote in 1916, ‘I am feeling rather lonely these days, and the loss of these chums has a greater effect on me than the experiences I go through personally’.
Official identity discs and bracelets

Official identity discs helped the teams who collected the dead put a name to men whose bodies had been devastated by high explosive shells or whose remains had decomposed.
From 1916 British soldiers wore two fibre discs. The green one stayed with the body and the red was removed for administrative purposes. German identity tags were metal. Many soldiers also made and wore personalised, unofficial identity bracelets unique to them.
Grave marker

This grave marker was made by comrades of 29-year-old Canadian Corporal Joshua Strong, who was killed in France.
Where possible soldiers who had been killed in action were given a burial which was presided over by a military chaplain.
Not all those who died had individual markers like Strong. Where there had been heavy casualties, the dead – often just body parts - were buried in mass graves and records kept of the locations.
Telegram and letter of condolence

Every day postmen delivered to families across Britain and the Empire the news that a loved one had been killed or wounded.
Families of British officers were notified by telegram. Families of other ranks received a form, such as the one shown here sent to the widow of Sapper Poole. His commanding officer also wrote a letter of condolence reassuring her that her husband had ‘died a noble death for his country’.

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Behind the front lines officers organised sports and entertainment to keep their men fit and to boost their morale.
Most soldiers needed little encouragement to play football or take part in other sports, from cricket to fishing.
Concert parties, with songs and sketches, brought the tradition of the music hall to the front line. But soldiers also found other ways to keep themselves entertained which were sometimes frowned upon.
Woodbines and pipe

Soldiers lived in a fug of cigarette smoke.
Brands from home such as Woodbines were far more popular than army issue tobacco. At the Front smoking helped to counter the smell of decay, relieve boredom and soothe frayed nerves. As one officer wrote, it ‘fills the place in a man’s life, out here’. Older soldiers tended to smoke a pipe.
Ventriloquist’s dummy and carrying case

Sergeant Arthur Harden entertained his comrades in France with his ventriloquist’s dummy, Douglas. Harden’s commanding officer soon realised the value of the ‘talking’ dummy’s act to his troops’ morale. To keep Douglas and his owner out of harm’s way, Harden was put on clerical duties. On one occasion Douglas’s carrying case was hit by shrapnel, but he and Sergeant Harden escaped unscathed.

Hunting knife and floral wallpaper

Front line soldiers made extra cash by selling battlefield trophies to officers or troops behind the lines.
The hunting knife was bought by Lieutenant Montague Moore from a British soldier who had taken it from a dead German. Moore sent it home, noting that, ‘it will look very fine in the drawing room’.
Souvenirs were more impressive if they came from enemy territory, like this sheet of floral wallpaper torn from a German dugout.
Boxing belt, programme and medals

Sport kept men fit and entertained while allowing them to let off steam.

The boxing belt here was awarded to the 8th Division’s champion fighters in France.
Horse races were very popular. Just as at home, the soldiers could get a programme such as the one here. Competitions were also held for more sedate activities as these vegetable show medals reveal.
Jug and swagger stick

Battlefield junk was sometimes turned into trench art, either by soldiers, or, more usually, by local craftspeople.

The jug we show here was made from an 18-pounder shell case by a Sapper of the Royal Engineers while he was manning an underground telephone exchange in the Ypres area. The swagger stick was made from cartridge cases, bullets and coins. Soldiers behind the lines tended to be the main customers for those who made trench art.
Wiggle Waggle journal

The Royal Engineers’ ‘Wiggle Waggle’ was one of hundreds of trench journals produced by soldiers for soldiers on the fighting fronts.
Some were professionally printed, others handwritten. They contained news, humour, gossip, and poked fun, often at officers.
Cards and dice game

Gambling was officially forbidden, but flourished behind the lines during rest periods. Many soldiers risked their spare change on games played with cards. Seasoned gamblers played Crown and Anchor, a dice game. More lenient officers turned a blind eye to this activity, but soldiers often posted a lookout during games, just to be sure.

Calling cards

For most soldiers there was little chance of ‘clicking’ with a local girl, so ten minutes with a prostitute offered what passed for intimacy. These calling cards advertise one of the brothels officially tolerated by the British Army. They ask in French, ‘Where are you going tonight?’. These brothels were regulated to try and control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, which hospitalised 150,000 British soldiers during the war.

Lucky charms

Soldiers regularly carried lucky charms in the hope of avoiding the bullet or shell ‘with their name on it’.
These were often in the form of traditional good luck symbols such as the horseshoe, shamrock or piece of coal. Many soldiers also had superstitious rituals. One Indian soldier heard that, ‘when you go into action, you take with you a piece of raw onion, bullets will not touch you’.
Gramophone and records

Lieutenant Cyril Tobitt took this gramophone record player to the Western Front with him.

Only wealthier soldiers could afford such a luxury. Tobitt kept his records in an ammunition box, asking his fellow officers to bring back new tunes when they went to Britain on leave.
Most soldiers had to make their own music. They sang popular songs, often with crude variations to lyrics.

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In peacetime, going to church had been part of many British soldiers’ Sunday mornings.
The Army provided religious services not just for Christians, but also for men of other denominations. War tested soldiers’ faith to the extreme. Even if not religious, many of them had a deeply felt sense of spirituality and superstition. Most men drew their greatest strength from the mates they lived and fought alongside, and the thought of going home to their families.
British Army pay book and local currency

This is a British Army pay book. Some soldiers’ pay was allocated to their families, while the rest was received in local currency. In France much of this was spent on food and drink in estaminets or in villagers’ homes. Estaminets were rough and ready bars serving unfamiliar delights such as omelettes, chips, steak and coffee and white wine - ‘vin blonc’. Non-drinkers might prefer to eat in a ‘dry’ YMCA canteen or Church Hut.

Phrase books

Most soldiers had never before left Britain and spoke no French.
They used phrase books or loud ‘franglais’, a tangled mix of English and French, to communicate.
Disagreements occasionally flared between soldiers and French civilians. British soldiers accused estaminet owners of watering down beer and inflating prices. French civilians resented soldiers stealing their crops and animals and damaging their property.
Field Communion set

Chaplains of all denominations were given officer status in the British Army.
They held religious services, offered a friendly and sympathetic ear to soldiers, gave comfort to the wounded and buried the dead.
One of them, Reverend Franklyn de Winton Lushington, used this field communion set on the Western Front. In 1915 Lushington had left his post as headmaster of Dover College, Kent to become an Army chaplain.
Embroidered postcard and chocolate soldier

This embroidered postcard, known as a ‘silk’, and the chocolate soldier were made by local people and refugees living behind the Allied lines to sell to soldiers. Refugees staying in convents were given embroidery silks by the nuns so that they could earn money by making embroidered postcards. Soldiers were eager to buy such gifts for their families at home.

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Rest behind the lines was intended to restore soldiers’ dignity and humanity.
They could walk upright without danger and enjoy the sights of ordinary life and reminders of home.
On the Western Front, French towns and villages were flooded with men on rest seeking food, drink, gifts and companionship. French locals often welcomed British troops, but sometimes relations between them could be tense.

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The cry of ‘mail up!’ heralded the arrival of letters and parcels from wives and girlfriends, parents, siblings and friends.

Letters kept up the spirits of the soldiers. They contained love, moral support, a reminder of home, food and gifts.
The Army Postal Service was hugely efficient. In four years of war an enormous depot in London dispatched 2 billion letters and 114 million parcels to serving soldiers.

Scoring out the lines on a Field Service postcard was the simplest way to let loved ones know you were alive and thinking of them.
There was also a postcard for Indian troops. Supplied by the Army, these cards were a salvation to men to whom words did not come easily or who were simply too exhausted to write at length.
Letter and green envelope

Officers censored letters written by their men, a job that gave them an intimate insight into their lives. In this letter an officer has scored out sensitive information in case it should fall into enemy hands. Occasionally soldiers were given a green envelope in which they could seal letters expressing more personal, intimate thoughts. These would only be read and censored at base by officers who did not know the writer.

Leave and travel passes

Leave and travel passes to England, only around 80 miles from the trenches, were regarded as magic tokens. Officers had more freedom to return home than their men, who were lucky if they went home more than once a year. For most Empire troops it was impossible to go home. Leave at home was hugely anticipated. But many soldiers found it difficult to talk to their families about their experiences.

Letter and Princess Mary gift box

In January 1915 Private Edward King sent his sister this letter in a Princess Mary gift box, griping that she should not ‘trubble about letters’.
Many soldiers lacked the ability or desire to put pen to paper, or simply did not have the time. When Private King wrote his letter, he and his comrades were trying to cope with appalling winter conditions in waterlogged trenches. He was killed on 20 January.
Kodak camera, photos and letter

Private photography and diary-keeping on the fighting fronts were officially forbidden in 1915.
There were fears that they could give the enemy vital intelligence. But Lieutenant Herbert Preston continued to use his Kodak Box Brownie camera and secretly sent the photographs to his wife. She used a cover name, Mrs Maxwell, shown on the letter displayed here, to sell them to the press.
Oxo cubes, pudding and tea

The Army Postal Service handled 60,000 parcels every day. Parcels to the Western Front usually contained cigarettes and other favourite comforts from home such as Oxo cubes, suet pudding and tea. These were often shared out with mates in the trenches. Caring officers sometimes asked their families to send out presents that they could then give to their men.


The Reverend Cyril Lomax, a battalion chaplain, drew sketches on his letters.
In one he wrote, 'One is so utterly glad to receive a letter... You can have no idea how one looks for the post, and how disappointed one feels if there is nothing for one’.
Many soldiers enclosed a pressed ‘Flanders Poppy’ with their letters, like this one sent by Sergeant Joseph Shaddick to his wife Biddy. Poppies grew wild on the Western Front battlefields.
Picture postcards and heart

Picture postcards were one of the most popular ways of keeping touch. In the year before the war 900 million postcards had been delivered in the UK and the separation of soldiers from their families gave the postcard industry an added boost. Many wives and girlfriends gave their soldiers a keepsake such as this heart to remember them by.

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