November 2018 marked 100 years since the end of World War I. We spent the previous four years remembering the course of that war, marking the many battles that were fought and honouring those who were lost. Then we were able to remember the end of the war on Armistice Day, and the enduring hope that sprang up with the silencing of the guns at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.
Getting back to regular life after spending so much time overseas in drastically different conditions was not an easy transition to make. What we now refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and treat with therapy and medication, was then medically termed “shell shock”, a recognised disease of sustained or intense stress, which was treated in ways that ranged from ground-breaking psychiatric care, to quackery, to absolute neglect. Within the military, especially from 1917 onward when so many servicemen were presenting with stress-related behaviours, shell shock was treated as a symptom of personal cowardice. The military response to traumatized men was shame, pain, torture, and sometimes execution.
Despite the horrors on and off the battlefields, by the end of 1918, optimism abounded and people were determined to commemorate the war, hoping that such a scale of destruction would never be witnessed again. A myriad of Armistice mementos became available, including postcards, handkerchiefs, and memorial crockery. Many soldiers scavenged their own souvenirs and returned home with the enemy weapons, flags and pieces of shrapnel.
Others, however, had more artistic leanings and created their own unique pieces to remember what they had seen and been a part of. The Whanganui Regional Museum holds a number of these souvenirs of war that were incorporated into everyday life to keep the memory of war alive, although the names of the soldiers who made them are unknown.
One such piece is an ink well made from remnants of battles, with the pieces collected in France and England. The base is made from teak wood that came from a torpedoed ship in Southampton, and four bullets that came from France. The hand grenade in the centre also came from France and was carefully hollowed out and the top removed to create a reservoir for ink. The aluminium band around the base was sourced from the first Zeppelin that was brought down in Essex, a feat managed by pilot V Robinson of the Air Squadron near the New Zealand Convalescent Depot at Hornchurch, in Sussex, UK.
A matching pair of decorative ashtrays were made from the cases of German shells. The ends of the shells were cut down to resemble military service caps, and each was decorated with a regimental badge. One, made in May 1915, bears the regimental shield of the Essex Regiment. The other made, made in 1917, bears the regimental shield of The Buffs, the Royal East Kent Regiment.
These unique souvenirs were kept by the soldiers and their families until they were donated to the Museum in the 1960s, and now we use them to help tell the stories of World War I and keep the memory alive. Lest We Forget.
Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.