Monday 11 November 2013

First World War Collectables: A Nasty Trade

Willard Foxton, 'First World War grave robbers: this nasty trade is growing as the 1914 anniversary approaches', Telegraph blog November 10th, 2013.
Shady dealing in militaria is nothing new, but the internet – in particular, special interest forums and the lawless so-called "darknet" – have opened up what used to be a tiny pursuit to a worldwide market, increasing demand. In particular, with the centenary of the First World War coming up, its relics are rapidly rising in value. If you know where to look, you can find posts on websites hawking [...] relics [...] Many of these relics sold online will be fake, but the sheer existence of the market is disturbing.
These objects have often been illegally taken by metal detectorists and other diggers from protected sites or sites that should be off-limits to responsible artefact hunters. That's one reason to be disturbed by all this. The second is far more distressing. The collector is especially interested in objects of a personal nature:
– especially dead soldiers' identification marks. In particular, there's a premium on British soldier's spoons, which would often have their owner's names embossed on them. Helmets can fetch high prices, too – including those bent out of shape by bullets or shells, which gives you some idea of what happened to the poor guy wearing it. As Andy Brockman, a leading conflict archaeologist told me:
"There is a market in all kinds of battlefield memorabilia and in the worst cases this can lead to the sale of identification tags and the removal of personal possessions like spoons and toothbrushes from battlefield burials. These objects can carry identifying marks and their loss can prevent authorities like the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from identifying the soldier concerned, robbing them of the chance of a marked grave. "When it comes to the illegal removal of equipment and personal possessions from the remains of the missing to feed the collectors market, I would agree with Andy Robertshaw of the Royal Logistics Corps Museum who says that it's like killing them twice."
Foxton writes of the efforts of Belgian police "who have been dealing with a spike in "nighthawking" thefts of items from farmer's fields in the Ypres salient over the last few year". There is apparently a prison sentence of ten years for those convicted of this offence in Belgium but like illegal artefact hunters in the UK, "for every person the police catch there are many others who successfully hide". And so it goes on. 
One of the questions I'd frequently ask people I spoke to for this piece was "Why do people buy this stuff?" No one could give me an answer, but this market thrives on contempt for those who served. With the next four years of First World War centenaries coming up, this problem will only get more serious.
Unless public attitudes to no-questions-asked collecting change.

[I'll gladly publicise here any sincere discussions of this topic and suggestions how to deal with it by responsible UK metal detectorists and their continental counterparts. Notifications please by the comments section]. 

Vignette: of course instead of hoiking stuff, people can always read books


Charles Peters said...

This is a subject close to my heart as 20th century European history is my interest and in particular the two world wars. Having been to most of the major WW1 battlefield sites and led small groups on such trips, including field walking with the farmers permission, the sheer amount of detritus is simply beyond belief, even after all these years.

One memorable trip was field walking the freshly ploughed Serre Battlefield (Part of the Somme and scene of some of the fiercest Somme fighting)and the filed was scattered with huge lumps of shrapnel and other items. One of the groups wondered over to me and said "what is this?" and I looked to see the lady holding a still live, perfectly intact rifle grenade (Pineapple on a stick)that I gently removed from her possession and placed by the side of the field for disposal once the farmer was informed. To this day, they still plough up dozens of unexploded shells that they pile up for the bomb disposal to take away.

I am not a collector of items but that said, I do have some bits of shrapnel lying around for no other reason than as a discussion piece. As for personal possessions of soldiers, I once picked up a complete leather shoe sole from Verdun, again just lying on the surface. If I were to find any object with an identifying mark then I would certainly report it.

There is a huge human urge to connect with people that have passed away by the holding and ownership of their possessions. Thankfully I have never succumbed to this urge but I do understand the urge. That is not to say I condone the taking of these items one bit but I think there is a mentality of the collector (not the finder) that somehow the object is still valuable as a human possession but the collector is mentally distanced from the act of taking and this must form some of the mental process that goes on with these people. An example would be the person who morally would never commit theft but when offered the dodgy care stereo in the pub, even though the person knows it is stolen, the moral connection has somehow been broken and they buy what they know are stolen goods.

As for the general detritus of war, the helmets, buckles, bullets, wire and other such items that do not have a connectable link with a combatant then let people collect these items as they would all simply rust away (most already have) and at least it serves to keep the memory and the sheer horror of these wars alive in people minds.

Paul Barford said...

Yes, I was thinking about this. The problem is a serious one here in Poland too of course. All around Warsaw are the battlefields of 1939 and 1944-5 and of course some of the dead out there are Nazis, which adds to the problems when the boys with metal detectorists get out there. The dogtag problem is one I believe I wrote about here a couple of years ago.

But then, is there not a lot of collectable militaria out there that never was in the ground? I remember as a boy playing with a WW1 helmet my granddad had in the garage which was Army surplus (goodness knows why my granddad bought it).

It comes down to the question of what to collect in a way that does no damage. There are good ways and bad ways of collecting, so how can we encourage the one and stop the other if collectors themselves do not think and talk about it? THAT is the problem.

Charles Peters said...

Oh the stuff is everywhere. Imagine this - The battle/war finally stops, the guns go silent, the troops retreat and behind them is the battlefield and all that is connected with it. The big stuff (cannons etc) gets taken home,the rest is just left where it was. Along come the locals, eager to see first hand what they have been denied for so long, their land, and lo and behold its a free for all. The amount of stuff in Belgian and French farmers barns and yards is immense and many items recycled for other purposes, especially the ubiquitous corrugated tin that now makes convenient pig shelters.

Re the ethics of collecting this stuff, it really boils down to items that are directly being connected to a body that are contentious. The rest is as far as i'm concerned, happily feeding the ever growing interest in these wars and that is not a bad thing. Only this summer I did the major D Day sites, having not visited them for perhaps 10 years and it was apparent that there were far more visitors of all ages to these sites than there were 10 years ago. Should history always be looked at as part of the past or does it benefit by being directly connected to and therefore relevant to the present courtesy of the objects and associated stories that go with them. Certainly this is true for children and in turn, those children become the adults and the storytellers of the future so perhaps it is not such a bad thing as far as the two world wars are concerned.

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