Today is Armistice Day, more recently known as Remembrance Day. An event that always brings focus to the simple and terrible reality of the First World War – and of all subsequent wars – the overwhelming loss of human life.
I recently posted about the remains of a frontline medical unit I saw on a trip to Belgium. While such wartime remnants can be found, the most prominent features across that scarred landscape today are the numerous memorials and cemeteries.
In the First World War, soldiers were killed on an industrial scale – an average of over 6,000 each day of the conflict. But they were not just killed by bullets, explosives and poison gases, they succumbed to numerous diseases, they drowned and they died in accidents when apparently safe, far away from the trenches. Who lived and who died could seem incredibly random to those serving their country.
When in the frontline, trenches and underground bunkers offered some protection. As did a soldier’s helmet, gas mask… and his common sense. But some took extra precautions. They might wear body armour, sometimes supplied by the military but occasionally sent by worried relatives back home – like this example advertised mid-page in an Australian newspaper from 1917. But their powers were limited, as the description of this soldier’s injuries suggests.
Leaving aside more conventional protection, many soldiers carried lucky charms or protective amulets. We have a number of them in our folk medicine collection.
Others have explicitly religious associations. The original museum label for the medallion above says it was provided by a Roman Catholic nun, for a soldier fighting in France.
We have no record of the fates of the original owners of these charms. One can only hope that come November 11th 1918, their luck had held out.