Touch Wood

Sold for pennies during the Great War (but now really quite rare), these good luck charms have a wooden component and were given to (or bought by) soldiers heading to the Front. The triangular one pictured here even has the words ‘Touch Wood’ on the metal frame. All of them were likely worn under a sleeve or a shirt to keep the wearer in contact with it. While the charm was probably a measure of desperation on the part of the soldier (or their loved one), it is also testament to the persistence of a belief in luck over a thousand years old.

There are a few theories about its origin. One idea suggests that the phrase originated from pagan beliefs and superstitions. In ancient times, trees were considered sacred and believed to be the dwelling places of spirits or deities. Touching or knocking on wood was a way to call on the protective powers of the spirits or deities residing within the trees.

Another theory holds that the phrase has its roots in Christian traditions. In the Middle Ages, it was common to touch or knock on the wooden crucifixes or relics in churches for good luck or to seek protection from evil.

Great War Propaganda Medals

A very well known decoration, the Iron Cross was he Iron Cross was held in great renown by the Germans. However, some of the ‘victories’ against civilians in places like Scarborough and some towns in Belgium were not a good look for their armed forces.

As a way of simultaneously mocking their enemy and raising war funds, the British made and sold thousands of imitations from cheap cast iron. They were then shipped to the front and strewn around the battlefield. Often they were inscribed with the names of some of the dishonourable ‘battles’ German forces had engaged in – eg. Amiens, Whitby, Hartlepool, Ghent.

One of the badges featured here reads ‘Iron Kaisers Cross’ and is one of the rarest types. In some cases they fetch more than the real iron cross itself!

The Long Shadow of Il Duce

What at first glance might seem to be a typical communist badge produced in their thousands across Europe hides an interesting secret. Anyone unaware of its hidden message might part with it for much less than the £45 that is the going rate.

In the years following the second world war, Italian fascist political prisoners made thousands of these badges as part of their rehabilitation. They could be fixed to a jacket by a pin and hook device, a simple stickpin or, as here, flat prongs. Although they are intended to celebrate May Day, the central event in the communist calendar, when inverted and turned round, we can see the unmistakeable silhouette of Mussolini.

Italy never experienced a process of denazification in political life and we can still see the effects today as two of his granddaughters are still active in politics, one as a council leader in Rome, the other as an MEP.

Terror of the German Sausage

At a time when seeing any powered flight was extremely rare, one can only imagine the fear which must have filled British civilians encountering Zeppelins for the first time. These lumbering behemoths may have been vulnerable to bad weather and, in the end, the attention of the Royal Flying Corps but for a time they had an effect on British morale out of all proportion to the threat they actually posed.

Although by the end of the war 564 Britons had been killed by Zeppelins with another 1,354 injured, the threat was all but over by 1917. Better ground-based anti-aircraft guns helped but it was the RFC’s use of incendiary bullets that really spelled the end of the Zeppelin raids.

This postcard from April 16, 1915, makes light of it all with the caption ‘German sausage over Lowestoft – frightfulness amounts to one broken glass, two horses and one sparrow killed’.

Public Billet Doux: Postcards in Wartime

These four hand coloured postcards sent between two French star crossed lovers express sentiments which were obviously deeply felt. The very fact that these cards are still here today hints at how much they must have been treasured by the couple in question.

Our other example was bought in France by a British soldier and sent home to a sweetheart he rather endearingly calls ‘Peechums’! He’s also pleased to hear about the ‘two Zepps being fetched down’. The date means this relates to the night of 23/24 September 1916 when two newly designed and built Zeppelins were destroyed. One, L32 was shot down by Frederick Sowrey, RFC, aged 23, and crashed near Snails Farm, South Green, Great Burstead, Near Billericay.