Artifacts of the Great War

A collection of World War I objects, from the mundane to the extraordinary

The Red Baron's engine.

The story of World War I will be told many times—and in many ways—as the centennial unfolds. In John Hughes-Wilson and Nigel Steel’s new book The First World War in 100 Objects (Firefly Books, 2014), the authors chose artifacts from the Imperial War Museums to illustrate different aspects of the conflict. “Rather than 100 purely generic or symbolic objects,” they write, “those chosen here invariably have particular stories to tell—of their makers, of their users and of how they were discovered or preserved....To really understand the First World War, it is as important to listen to the thoughts of an individual Tommy about his rations, or his wife’s disgruntlement of food queues back home, as it is to grasp the grand strategy of battles or the horrifying statistics of casualties.”

Here are a few objects related to the air war from their list of 100.  

Images and text reprinted with permission from the publisher. 

Sopwith Camel

Perhaps the best remembered British airplane is the Sopwith Camel, which entered service in the summer of 1917, helping to transform the Royal Flying Corps’ fortunes. It was a quirky machine, driven by a rotary engine that turned so quickly it would spin out of control. But skillful pilots used this unique characteristic to whip around faster than other aircraft and move them into a dominating position behind their opponents, turning the Camel into a superb fighting aircraft. This one, serial number N6812, was part of the newly formed Royal Air Force in 1918, though it was actually in naval service, towed on a floating launch ramp behind a destroyer. On August 11, 1918, it was patrolling the North Sea. Previous patrols had been threatened by Zeppelins flying overhead, and when one was spotted in the distance, Canadian-born Lieutenant Stuart Culley was ordered to take off from his precarious platform and shoot it down. For over an hour, Culley climbed at full throttle towards the distant airship. Once in position, he turned to attack with his two Lewis guns fixed on the upper wing. One jammed, but Culley still poured all the bullets from the other into the airship. As he pulled away, the Zeppelin ignited and plunged 18,000 feet towards the waves—the last ever to be shot down. Culley’s famous aircraft has been on display at the Imperial War Museum since 1935. 

Aluminum ammunition box

This aluminum ammunition box belonged to the airship designated L.31, commanded by probably the best-known and most effective German airship raider, Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy. He and his machine met their end in the early hours of October 1, 1916, northwest of London, when caught by 2nd Lieutenant Wulfstan Tempest of 39 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. Boldly flying through anti-aircraft fire, Tempest made three sweeps along L.31, pumping in incendiary ammunition. “As I was firing,” he remembered, “I noticed her begin to go red inside like an enormous Chinese lantern.” L.31 and her crew plummeted to earth from almost 15,000 feet, the impact on hitting the ground visible in the way the ammunition box’s bullets perforated its soft skin. It was the fourth airship brought down in as many weeks; after months of attack, Londoners were no longer defenseless. As the burning airships lit up the night sky, thousands cheered. But at least one observer, Sybil Morrison, was more reflective. “I was appalled to see the kind, good-hearted British people dancing round in the streets at the sight of 60 people being burnt alive, clapping, singing and cheering. It was like a flash to me that this is what war did. It created this utter inhumanity in perfectly decent people.”


Message Streamer

Throughout the war, aircraft provided armies with their eyes in the sky. In the opening days, pilots collected and sent back vital intelligence as troops moved across Belgium and northern France. They included Euan Rabagliati, a newly qualified pilot with the Royal Flying Corps. Observing beyond Mons just before hostilities began, he was astonished by what was revealed below him: “Instead of seeing a few odd German troops I saw the whole area covered with hordes of field grey uniforms—advancing infantry, cavalry, transport and guns. In fact it looked as though the place was alive with Germans.” But to pass on this information, Rabagliati had to land. He was then driven to GHQ and reported to Sir John French in person. For the first few months of the war, RFC aircraft were not fitted with wireless radio sets. Even when they were, communications remained unreliable, so the only alternative while still in the air was to drop messages, either in weighted bags or on colored streamers. This blue, yellow and red cloth streamer landed near 3rd Division headquarters during the Battle of the Marne in 1914. It was retrieved by the division’s senior staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General Sir) Frederick Maurice, who donated it to the Imperial War Museum in 1933, of which he was then a Trustee.

Camouflage Tree

The intimacy and claustrophobia of trench warfare made it difficult to hide. Aerial reconnaissance meant that anything rendering units less detectable mattered. Using new wartime skills in the art of camouflage, artificial positions were created, where possible, to overlook the front lines. In March 1918, the Imperial War Museum acquired this camouflaged observation post that had stood in no-man’s land between the lines. Made from thin metal to resemble the battle-worn trunk of a pollarded willow, it is hollow, with irregular-shaped holes cut into the sides for observation. To render them, and the observer, invisible, the holes were covered with painted metal gauze. The trunk contains a thick steel lining to protect the occupant, the necessity of such protection being underlined by the shrapnel and bullet marks peppering the outer shell. Amid the desolate landscape of the battlefield, the tree—and its secret occupant—would probably have passed unnoticed. 

Aerial Photography

In the troglodytic world of the trenches, possibly the most valuable intelligence either side could possess was knowledge of what was happening beyond the opposing frontline. Direct observation on the ground was almost impossible. Accurate and methodical reconnaissance from the air was needed to fill this gap, and soon cameras were in use in the skies. Basic cameras were first used by the British as early as September 1914, but it was not until the formation of an experimental photographic section in January 1915 that aerial photography began to develop. A hand-held wooden camera, the “A Type,” took images on glass plates, but it was complicated to operate. One observer remembered: “You had to take your slide out of the box—with your glove off of course—get it into the camera, take your photograph, close up the plate, take the slide out of the camera, back into your box. By that time your hand was so cold that over and over again I’ve lost the plate as I took it out of the camera. I’ve cried with numbness and the pain in my hand.” The “C Type” shown here was introduced in summer 1915. Fixed to the aircraft’s fuselage, it produced a more consistent quality of photo. In addition, after each exposure, a semi-automatic mechanism changed the plates within the camera frame. The “C Type” facilitated a widespread expansion of aerial photography, allowing it to keep pace with the Royal Flying Corps’ rapid growth. New cameras appeared—lighter, stronger, and with better focal lengths. By 1918 no one could fight a battle without taking pictures from the skies. 

Red Baron's Engine

Fighter aces like Albert Ball VC or France’s Georges Guynemer became household names, and their deaths were widely mourned. But chief among them, the most enduring name, was German ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen, or the “Red Baron.” By mid-April 1918 he had been credited with 80 “kills.” Richthofen had been promoted to command Jagdgeschwader 1 (literally “Hunting Wing 1”), known as the “Flying Circus” because of the varied colors disguising its aircrafts’ outlines as well as its peripatetic nature. He was piloting a red Fokker Dr.1 Triplane when, on April 21, 1918, he pursued a novice British pilot in a Sopwith Camel. A more experienced Canadian pilot, Roy Brown, swooped down and fired a burst that raked Richthofen’s machine. Close to the ground, Richthofen was also hit by Australian machine gun fire. Whoever delivered the fatal bullets, he was mortally wounded and his plane then crashed. He was so famous that people clamored for souvenirs. Pieces of canvas were cut from his aircraft, and his flying boots went to Australia. His Oberursel UR2 rotary engine from the crash-site, shown here, came to Britain as a trophy for the Royal Air Force, which passed it on to the new War Museum the following year. It remains a symbol of the man and machine that epitomized the era of the fighter ace.

P.O.W. Escape Package

A week after the Armistice, Captain Jack Shaw received a letter at his prison camp in Holzminden, Germany. Ostensibly a cheery letter from home, it was actually a coded message from a British Intelligence Officer alerting him to the dispatch of secret escape equipment. Reading the second character of every fourth word, it told him to “LOOK OUT FOR ARMOUR TONGUE TINS.” Shaw’s mother had regularly sent him parcels of food, but it was the last one—returned to her because of the suspension of the war—that contained this unusual tin of Armour Tongue. Inside the tin were wire cutters, compasses and thin, rolled maps showing the country between Holzminden and Holland, together with a lead weight to make the unopened tin of “tongue” weigh the same as a real one. A fighter pilot, Shaw had been shot down during the fighting at Messines in 1917. He made his first attempt to escape from Freiburg, and was then sent to the troublemakers’ camp at Holzminden. While incarcerated, he developed his secret code to contact London. A leading figure in Holzminden’s tunnel, through which 29 officers escaped in July 1918, Shaw was waiting to go through when it collapsed. The experiences he and his fellow prisoners had, and the development of covert links with military intelligence in Britain, paved the way for a new generation of even more famous “great escapers” 20 years later.