Remembering 1916: Ten amazing objects from Life on the Western Front

By Ben Miller | 09 April 2016 | Updated: 08 April 2016

The battles of Verdun, Jutland and the Somme left a mass of untold stories and uncelebrated individuals behind. These objects and artworks help tell some of those tales

A photo of an advert from the first world war
© Private Collection

Your King and Country Needs You recruitment poster

This poster employs many of the British propaganda techniques used to persuade men to enlist. Despite hostilities which led to the outbreak of war in 1914, the public’s loyalty to King and Country remained unquestioned.

There was widespread belief in the British Empire and its ability to win the war quickly. The Boer War had ended just 12 years before, and this imagery depicts the theme of military veterans passing on the baton to the next generation.


A photo of a military uniform from the first world war
© Whitgift Archive

British airman tunic and cap

The First World War saw the first extensive use of aircraft in warfare. As it was so new, uniforms tended to be worn under adapted forms of weatherproof motoring clothing.

This was worn by Captain Charles Theodore Vachell, a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps who was awarded a Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in 1918.

A photo of a military uniform from the first world war
© Whitgift Archive

French priest’s side cap and brassard

This hat and brassard (or armband) were worn by a French priest during the war. The Secularism Act (1905) established a strict separation of church and state in the French government, although this was not the case in the military.

The French population was divided over the role of religion in the state, but priests played an important role in maintaining morale in the war.

A photo of a military uniform from the first world war
© Whitgift Archive

British PH (tube) helmet and British gas rattle

Poison gas was first used on the Western Front in the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April 1915. By July 1916, the “PH” Helmet, also known as the Tube Helmet, was commonly used by the British Army in France.

Wooden gas rattles like the one next to it were used by soldiers in the trenches to warn their comrades of the presence of gas.

A photo of a military uniform from the first world war
© Private Collection

German trench club

As trench warfare became the norm on the Western Front, soldiers had to be prepared to come face to face with the enemy in the confined space of the trench. As a result, the belligerent armies once again began to use vicious weapons for close combat, such as clubs.

This particular model, which is similar to the medieval Flemish weapon, the ‘Goedenhag’, was one of the most widely used German trench clubs.


A photo of a military uniform from the first world war
© Whitgift Archive

Women’s Royal Air Force uniform and album

This khaki single-breasted uniform and cap belonged to Kathleen Hargreaves, a member of the Women’s Royal Air Force. The WRAF was established in April 1918, and women could work in one of its four different divisions: Clerks and Storewomen, Household, Technical and Non-Technical.

Although the Technical section included many highly-skilled trades, such as tinsmiths, fitters and welders, the shorthand typists were actually the highest-paid women in the WRAF.

A photo of a military uniform from the first world war
© Whitgift Archive

British Signaller's brassard with pigeon message container

Communication technology during the War was still primitive and prone to error. In addition to human signals, methods such as sending carrier pigeons were also used.

Messages were written on small pieces of paper to fit inside containers like this one.

A photo of a military uniform from the first world war
© Private Collection

French grave marker

The death toll in the First World War was unprecedented, and many of those who fell in combat were never found. The places where these soldiers fell were marked with grave markers by their comrades in place of actual graves.

The iconic tricolour instantly distinguishes these grave markers as French, and their shape recalls a rosette or medal to honour the dead.

A photo of a military uniform from the first world war
© Private Collection

Cigarette Cards

Cigarette cards first appeared in the mid-19th century, enclosed in product packaging. They reached the height of their popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, when tobacco companies issued series’ of collectable cards on a variety of subjects.

These cards all feature First World War subjects, with images on one side and more details on the other.

A photo of a military uniform from the first world war
© Private Collection

British decorated food tin

The painted decoration on this tin features well-known military figures from the early years of the war. Field Marshal Sir John French was commander of the British Expeditionary Force from the outbreak of war until December 1915.

Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener acted as British Secretary of State for War from the start of the conflict until his death on June 5 1916. Admiral John Jellicoe was commander of the British Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, subsequently becoming First Sea Lord.

And four portraits of those involved...

Eugene Burnand was a famous artist from Switzerland who painted primarily Alpine and pastoral scenes, as well as Biblically themed paintings. Between 1917 and 1920, nearing the end of his life, Burnand created an astonishing collection of pastel portraits of 104 individuals who had served on the side of the Allies during the First World War.

These pastel and pencil portraits demonstrate a remarkable diversity in age, rank and country of origin. They encompass almost all countries on the Allied side and, despite the significant number of European servicemen, also feature female nurses and many soldiers and workers from the then European colonies. The portraits were published as a book, “Les Alliés Dans La Guerre Des Nations” in 1922.

A photo of a portrait of army personnel from the first world war
© Whitgift archive

Senegalese auxiliary soldier

At the time of the First World War Senegal was a French colony. France used a great number of troops from its colonies during the war.

In 1916 Senegalese troops took part in the Battle of Verdun, during which they recaptured the important fortress of Douaumont and also served in the Battle of the Somme.

A photo of a portrait of army personnel from the first world war
© Whitgift archive

Fijian soldier

This soldier would, like other men from the British colonies, have fought alongside British men across Europe.

When Britain declared war on Germany, it called on men from all parts of its empire to help in the fighting.

A photo of a portrait of army personnel from the first world war
© Whitgift archive

Winter Russian infantryman

This portrait is of Makieh Chichkine, from Astrakhan in south European Russia. The Cossacks were a people who lived north of the Black and Caspian seas in the confines of the Russian Empire.

During the 19th and 20th centuries they were extensively used by Russia in military actions, including during the First World War.

A photo of a portrait of army personnel from the first world war
© Whitgift archive

French nurse

A total of around 120,000 French women served as nurses during the war – most as volunteers, often as members of the Red Cross.

Nurses played a pivotal role in the treatment of wounded servicemen in all theatres of war. Many American nurses, just like their European counterparts, served on the Western Front in difficult conditions, often being exposed to artillery and aerial bombardment, as well as emotional trauma.

  • Remembering 1916 - Life on the Western Front is at the Whitgift Exhibition Centre, London until August 31 2016. Visit remembering1916.co.uk.

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Three museums to find First World War stories in

Cotehele, Cornwall
Not many people are aware that Cotehele House is a war memorial. To commemorate the centenary of the First World War, curators are holding an exhibition of items loaned from members of the local community who have generously shared their stories. Until December 31 2018.

The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
Efforts and Ideals: Prints of the First World War is a touring exhibition from the National Museum of Wales of all 66 works from the 1917 print portfolio, The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and Ideals, which includes contributions from some of the best-known British artists of the period. Until June 28 2016.

The Novium, Chichester
Explore the bravery, creativity, joy and sorrow of World War One and its impact on Chichester in an interactive exhibition with lots of hands on activities including first aid and testing out a German Picklehaube. Continues throughout 2016.
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