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What’s in the attic?

As millions of men returned home

from the wars they brought with

them trinkets, treasures and

mementos. Passed down through

generations the story of many of

these objects has been lost, and

in some instances it’s not always

obvious what their original use was.

Perhaps with little monetary worth

their value is in sentiment, though

as we’ll see they could be of use to

someone. Do you know what you

have in your attic or shed?

Some of the best known artefacts

brought home from the First World

War is “trench art”. The term “trench

art” itself is a misnomer conjuring

up ideas of Tommy Atkins sitting in

his dugout, tapping away on used

shells. This of course would bring

him under unwanted attention from

the Germans. The reality is that

trench art was often crafted away

from the front lines during periods of

rest and recuperation, or as troops

convalesced in hospitals.

When 43 year old Private John

Paxton of the Labour Corps returned

home from the First World War

he brought with him a brass vase

made from a spent German shell

casing. Two brass handles have been

soldered to the side, the design

carefully punched on is a tree with

two birds, on the reverse are oak

leaves and the word Souvenir. Its

a 77mm shell which would have

been fired from the German 7.7cm

Feldkanone either the FK96 or the

newer FK16, which was introduced

in 1916. The shell origins are clear,

stamped on the bottom is Polte

Magdeburg, Jan 1916. The Polte

ammunition works in Magdeburg,

Germany, were huge. They continued

to produce shells throughout Second

World War. The date is when it was

manufactured. 75mm and 77mm

shells proved popular with returning

troops, they were easily fashioned

into vases, many were produced as

souvenirs which the troops brought

home as gifts for loved ones. The

floral design was not uncommon

others might have unit insignia,

battles, tanks or aeroplanes. The

actual provenance of this piece is

difficult to say, souvenirs were made

by Prisoners of War and exchanged,

it could have been produced by a

soldier or civilian as a saleable item.

After the war commercial firms even

produced “trench style” art.

It’s unlikely Paxton fashioned this

vase himself, though we will never

know, it’s unusual for trench art to

be signed with any makers mark.

Removal of the shell casing would

have been classed as theft and the

artist would have suffered severe

repercussions if caught. All this time

later it sits quietly gleaming, regularly

polished, in his granddaughters hall

by the front door.

It’s not just small trinkets that people

brought home from the war. Colour

Sgt John Wallace, who served with

the Yorkshire Regiment during the

First World War came home with a

propeller blade. Wallace served with

the 18th Battalion (Green Howards),

they never saw overseas service.

When initially raised they were

billeted in the North East of England,

before moving to Clacton-on-Sea

then Margate on the south coast.

Not only is it a mystery where the

propeller blade was found, but also

which plane it may have come from.

At 130cm long and 32 cm wide the

original canvas or linen covering is

just about still intact, after nearly

one hundred years in the rafters of

the family garage. The only possible

clue is the makers crest of Barker &

Co, any other critical information for

identification would have been on

the hub at the centre which has been

cut off.

Barker and Co was formed in 1710 by

one of Queen Anne’s Guards officers,

by the late 1700’s the company was

making coaches for the King. They

continued to hold a royal warrant

producing at least 20 coaches for

Queen Victoria, and in the early 19th

century they started to supply bodies

to Rolls-Royce. Primarily working

in wood they began producing

propellers, from 1916, at their their

factory in Elvedon Road, Willesden. It

is quite likely that is where this blade

was made.

It is difficult to directly associate

a plane with this propeller blade,

though its relatively unsophisticated

aerofoil shape indicates it quite

possibly came from something like

the Geoffrey De Havilland designed

B.E.2 biplane which was produced

throughout the war.

The chances are if you don’t know

the provenance or history of a First

World War artefact you now never

will, but there is still time to gather

the stories of artefacts from the

Second World War. And it’s not just

the obvious things that are

of interest.

The De Havilland Mosquito was

arguably one of the most versatile

planes of the war, it could fly to

Berlin and back in almost half the

time of an American B-17, delivering

a similar payload of bombs. What

made the Mosquito unusual for a

modern plane at the time was its

all wood construction. Whilst the

all wood monocoque design was

innovative, time has taken its toll on

the wood. This is one problem The

People’s Mosquito have found in

their quest to bring a flying “Mossie”

back to British skies. The last British

based Mosquito crashed in 1996, and

the team plan on rebuilding one, but

almost all the wooden parts need to

be reconstructed.

Ross Sharp, the Director of

Engineering at The Peoples

Mosquito, says things turn up all

the time “Just the other week we

were given a new, unused, cabin

heater. You might say what’s a cabin

heater? Well as far as the Mosquito is

concerned it’s a vital part. Along with

that cabin heater, a radiator and an

oil cooler were bolted together, onto

a tray and formed the inner portion

of the wing leading edge on the

starboard side.”

John Lilley the Chairman and

Managing Director is keen to hear

from anyone with suspected original

parts, as he says “anything wooden

can be made new, what we are

looking for is the lesser known

metal parts”.

The crest of Barker & Co

Coachbuilders who produced

propellers for the British war effort

from 1916.

The propeller blade brought home

by Colour Sgt Wallace. This would

have been one of four blades making

up the whole propeller.

The underside of the 77mm shell.

The marking shows it was German,

made in January 1916 at the Polte

works in Magdeburg.

Angus Wallace is a keen history dilettante,

he hosts the

WW2 Podcast

and co-founded


For the last ten years

he has been producing podcasts looking at

military history.

Mosquito (Photo reconnaissance) -

Hutchinson’s Pictorial History of the

War, Series 25, No 16

The shell “trench art” brought

home by Private Paxton.

“Souvenir” might indicate he

purchased it as a memento

rather than made it himself.