It may seem incredible to us now but only a hundred years ago smoking was widely regarded as benificial to health. Governments praised its effects on morale whilst also pointing to the soothing effects of lighting up after periods of action or enduring intense bombardments. There is no doubt that it encouraged mateyness – sharing a fag being an easy way to strike up friendships and official estimates of December 1914 state that over 96% of British soldiers were smokers. At a time before automatic lighters, that meant looking after your matches as much as your smokes – no easy job in a muddy trench for weeks at a time.
Many soldiers stored their matchboxes in brass or copper covers like those pictured so they wouldn’t be crushed in a pocket. Often, having lots of time on their hands, they would personalise or decorate them in some way. The most valuable show the chap’s name and service number as their war record can then be confirmed with the national archives.
The aluminium(?) cover in the photo is unusual in that it shows a German prisoner of war pushing a loaded wheelbarrow below the words “comm on Fritz”. It belonged to “R J Elliott of 322 Q Coy” – Q Company being the poison gas unit of the Royal Engineers. Typical examples sell for £15 – £20 but this one is more likely to fetch three times that.
A footnote to this item is the popular superstition that it is bad luck to light three cigarettes from one match. This is supposed to have originated during the Great War when an enemy sniper would be alerted to a target’s location as the first cigarette is lit, ready his rifle and adjust range for the second before taking aim and firing at the third. It’s a neat story and would seem to make a lot of sense. Yet no references to the bad luck associated with “three on a match” have been found before 1919 so there goes another myth!