Wearing your heart on your sleeve

An original British Army recruitment sergeants patch from the early 1900’s, this would have been worn on the lower arm. The crossed union flags are nicely detailed with wire and silk. At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the regular army was 700,000 strong (today it stands at 117,000 including 30,000 reservists). The government appealed for 100,000 volunteers but by the end of September they had 750,000.

Young men had to be 18 to sign up and 19 to be sent overseas to fight. The stories of young lads lying about their age in case they missed out before it was “all over by Christmas” are true. It’s estimated that over 250,000 underage boys signed up. This was facilitated by recruiting sergeants who turned a blind eye to their obvious youth and adopted a more avuncular approach quite different from their approach on the parade ground!

The Black Cat Division

Originally formed in WWI but gaining fame in the Burma Campaign 1942-45 when it was continually in action, the 17th Indian Division also enjoyed the distinction of being known as the Black Cats. Their original formation sign had been a lightning bolt but changed to this design in mid-1942. The British Indian Army already numbered some 200,000 men at the outbreak of the war. By the end of the war it had grown to 2.5 million, still the largest volunteer army in history.

Unit formation sign patches are a very affordable way of becoming a militaria collector as they start at about £10. Most come in forward facing pairs but contemporary photographs show that soldiers sometimes wore mismatched pairs or a single one on a bush hat. Generally, it is best to focus on a particular theatre or campaign such as Normandy or the Far East. Interest in patches continues to grow and they often crop up on programmes like Antiques Roadshow.

Designated Drivers

These three original British Army patches signify that the wearer is a qualified driver. All bear a steering wheel design but the earliest (top) bears the letters IC (“Internal Combustion”) since some vehicles were still ox/horse drawn at this period. By the 1940’s a star had replaced the letters with a king’s crown signifying that the wearer was in fact a drving instructor.

Like all specialist trades in the Army, such patches were worn on the lower left arm. To save officers the trouble of having to ask though, qualified drivers would usually wear their chin strap tucked up behind the cap’s badge.

During the temporary closure of the market, we have decided to continue posting every fortnight on our blog – beginning with a series on patch collecting.

Operation Temporarily Suspended

Regrettably, Charing Cross Collectors Market is temporarily suspending operations in line with government advice on managing the Covid-19 pandemic. We must prioritise the health and safety of our dealers, our customers and, indeed, the general public. We will of course monitor the situation closely and only open again when we feel it is safe to do so. This will be announced on our blog and all our social media channels. In the meantime, please look after yourselves everyone, follow all the relevant NHS guidance and we’ll see you again soon.

Mystery Solved

A few days ago we asked if anyone could help to interpret this photograph of two postcards which we know refer to the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. What we didn’t yet understand was how it refers to it. Who is the bell boy on the right? The uniformed horse? Why is he laughing? What does the pump refer to? Russian Reddit users u/sUpport84 and u/agrostis came to the rescue. The explanation below is thanks to him.

First off, these two postcards are part of a set of three as it is taken from a (presumably French) triptych from the period. The whole thing is a mocking take on Japanese ambitions in the Far East.

So far as we know, Julian doesn’t have the middle postcard. This was Photoshopped in.

The bull is Russia, Japan is the frog and the bell boy / servant is Britain. As an ally of Japan, Britain was keen to use her power to curb Russian influence in the region. France, meanwhile was allied to Russia. The artist is poking fun at the pretensions of Japan by referencing the fable of the Frog and the Ox, in which the former tries to inflate itself to the size of the latter and bursts in the attempt. In the postcard the frog asks “Look, aren’t I big enough yet?”. Britain’s reply is “not yet”.

Case closed!

Rare Civil War Medallion

A real rarity this week as we feature a 350 year old silver gilt medallion made in honour of Robert Devereux. He was the third Earl of Wessex and, on the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Parliament’s choice as the leader of their armed forces. His desire to reach an agreement with the king did not endear him to some of the more radical anti-Royalists among the MP’s though and by 1646 he had been replaced by Sir Thomas Fairfax.

Devereux was a key figure in the movement though and accorded a grand funeral at Westminster Abbey. Dying before the trial and execution of the king in 1649 had the added bonus that he was not a signatory to his death warrant. Thus he was spared the indignity of posthumous execution meted out to some of the regicides. The corpses of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw were dug up, hanged, beheaded, their bodies thrown into a pit and their heads placed on a spike from a point in front of the spot where Charles I met his fate.

Yet what makes this medallion so unusual is the fact that, previously, only silver ones have been recorded. So far as we know, this silver gilt example is one of a kind but please contact us if you have any further information.

A Headturning Display

On display at Charing Cross Collectors Market last Saturday was this headturning display of antique helmets. The two buffed ones on the left are French fireman’s helmets – the furthest left dates from 1880 / 1900 while the one below it on the table is from 1900 / 1920. Cutting a dash in the middle with its distinctive Pickelhelm spike is a German lobstertail cavalry helmet from WWI while on the right is its gloriously plumed French counterpart from the second empire period (1852-70). Come along this Saturday and see our latest range of wonderful antique collectables. 8am – 2pm.

Foreign Awards

Completing our brief overview of the six major types of medals is a look at France’s croix de guerre. Although it has no direct equivalent in the UK medal hierarchy, it falls somewhere between the Military Medal and Mentioned in Dispatches. Also issued by the Belgian government, it was awarded in both world wars and French examples are dated on the reverse by means of a fitted disc.

Interestingly, this was awarded by both the British and collaborationist Vichy regime during WWII. As ever, sold as part of a group with relevant documentation identifying the recipient add at least £50 to the value of the piece (and possibly even many hundreds depending on the action) but single original medals can be bought from just £15.

The 369th in action at Séchault in France, 29 September 1918

Famous recipients include the writer Samuel Beckett, several daring SOE agents like Violette Szabo and Yvonne Baseden and the mainly African American 396th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, for their tremendous valour in the Great War.

Unofficial Medals

WWI tribute medal

Although they obviously don’t attract as much interest as official medals awarded by the sovereign, ‘tribute’ medals like this one are nevertheless an important part of the historical record. The earliest ones were struck after some of Britain’s nineteenth century wars but they were issued in great numbers following World War I. Many towns and even villages had a committee which raised funds to send Christmas gifts and treats to soldiers in the trenches. When the war ended the leftover money was often used to buy a permanent mark of gratitude for returning soldiers – and even the widows of those who didn’t. There was no standard design for these so the range is very wide but the town crest will usually give a location at least. Unfortunately, many bear nothing which could indicate who the recipient was.

However, the tribute medal shown here is rather different. In the first instance, it was paid for by a private individual, Mrs Cunliffe-Owen. In 1914 she had been instrumental in raising the 24th (Service) and 2nd (Sportsman’s) Battalions in London. They trained in Romford, Essex. Her signature is on the back of the medal (dated 1915) and the man’s service number (2656) allows us to trace his war record. Private George Joseph Burge of Portsmouth of the 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers was later awarded the Military Medal for bravery in 1918 before being killed in action just a month before the armistice.

British Commemorative Medals

The wide array of commemorative medals is matched by the metal used to make them. Everything from gold to tin based pewter has been used and this is reflected in the variety of recipients – servicemen and women, civilians and even children at parades or street parties. Some were allocated by lottery. One such was Queen Elizabeth’s coronation medal (above). There is a story of a guardsman who trained for weeks to take part in the whole parade and ceremony. He didn’t get a medal but his ex-guardsman father who watched it all on television did.

Some commemorative medals were given away at street parties and local events. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the ones to look out for are those of gold or silver but in particular if they are named. Ones awarded to smaller towns normally bear the mayor’s name. Commonwealth medals were made in fewer numbers so these are also worth keeping an eye out for. It’s worth noting though that many of these medals originally had no ribbon attached. Either the body awarding them or the recipient might add them later so they looked better. For this reason the ribbons are far more varied than the medals!

This last group (of three medals) is (from left) a Northern Ireland General Service Medal, a 2003 Iraq medal (both of these are named) and a 1952-2002 Golden Jubilee medal. Although it was issued unnamed, the Jubilee medal adds more value to the group than it would on its own. A safer way to avoid being landed with a fake is to buy one boxed with its issue card though.