Patrick Mulkeen's Service Kit Bag , 7 May 1917, Europeana 1914-1918 / Brendan Freeman, CC BY-SA

Introduction

While a weapon, ammunition, food, water and uniform were obviously a necessary part of a serviceman’s kit, many carried personalised items that to them were much more significant. Small luxuries to bring the soldier or airman good luck were often found tucked into his pack, which could weigh upwards of 23kg. Along with log books that detailed tales of day to day bravery were religious items, photographs of loved ones, books and mascots that provide an even more compelling insight to the minds of those sent to fight on the Front Line.

10,000 feet with no parachute

Balancing precariously in an open cockpit at 10,000 feet with nothing but a gun to hold on to, flying ace Giles Blennerhassett managed to shoot down eight enemy Albatros fighter planes in just three months.

The courageous 22-year-old 2nd lieutenant was awarded the Military Cross for his skill as an F.E.2b aircraft observer, which involved firing a .303 Lewis machine gun on a swivel mount, from an exposed platform at the front of the plane. On one occasion he attacked two hostile aircraft, forcing both to lose control.

Blennerhassett’s son Brian, 93, who contributed his log book and a series of photos of him, said: “He would’ve been sliding around on a metal floor and having to use the edge of the cockpit to brace himself to fire the weapon.

“There were no safety belts or parachutes - how he didn’t fall out defies imagination. He was a very brave man.”

Blennerhassett, from Sligo, was aged 20 in March, 1916, when he was seconded from the 4th Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers, where he had fought in the trenches in France, to become an observer with the Royal Flying Corps, which became the RAF. He became a pilot in 1917.

Giles Blennerhassett in uniform, undated, Europeana 1914-1918 / Brian Blennerhassett, CC BY-SA
Giles Blennerhassett in uniform, undated, Europeana 1914-1918 / Brian Blennerhassett, CC BY-SA
Blennerhasset’s commission into the RAF, 1 December 1918, Europeana 1914-1918 / Brian Blennerhassett, CC BY-SA
Blennerhasset’s commission into the RAF, 1 December 1918, Europeana 1914-1918 / Brian Blennerhassett, CC BY-SA

Knapsack reveals WW1 treasures

Deep within the attic and hidden beneath a beam at his house in Dornberk, Slovenia, Silvester Kovačič discovered this veritable treasure trove of WW1 memorabilia.

The knapsack, belonging to Victor Mitkiewicza, a cadet in the 22nd Provisional Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army, lay undiscovered until 20 years ago.

The bag contained an unsent letter to Mitkiewicz’s mother, along with correspondence and postcards from her, his brother and his girlfriend, Ilde Gabrau. There was also a yellow sword knot or “portepee” – a decorative item tied to the wearer’s weapon to signify a certain unit or section.

Kovačič, who also found a sleeping bag in the attic, says he has been approached by many collectors wishing to buy the knapsack or at least part of its contents. However, he is hoping that by sharing the precious items with www.europeana1914-1918.eu he might be able to reunite them with Mitkiewicza’s descendants.

The letters revealed that Mitkiewicza was housed in Dornberk, which was part of the Isonzo Front. From the postcards, it would seem he served in the area of Feldpost 357 in 1915 and 26 in 1916. Most of the cards he received were sent from Semmering, Vienna and Innsbruck.

Knapsack of Victor Mitkiewicz, 1915-1916, Dornberk, Slovenia, Europeana 1914-1918 / Silvester Kovačič, CC BY-SA
Knapsack of Victor Mitkiewicz, 1915-1916, Dornberk, Slovenia, Europeana 1914-1918 / Silvester Kovačič, CC BY-SA
Swordknot or “portepee” – a decorative item tied to the wearer’s weapon to signify a certain unit or section, item found in knapsack of Victor Mitkiewicz, Europeana 1914-1918 / Silvester Kovačič, CC BY-SA
Swordknot or “portepee” – a decorative item tied to the wearer’s weapon to signify a certain unit or section, item found in knapsack of Victor Mitkiewicz, Europeana 1914-1918 / Silvester Kovačič, CC BY-SA

Unsent letter to Mitkiewicz’s mother

Saved by a marriage proposal

Polish WW1 refugee Janina Elizabeta Mazurkiewicz saved young Slovenian soldier Michael Drašček from prison – by insisting the couple marry.

Drašček, from Ozeljan, Slovenia, was 25 when he joined the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914, and claimed the beginning of WW1 was heralded by the sound of church bells ringing across the neighbourhood.

He was sent to the Eastern Front in Galicia, where he was wounded and captured by the Russians. According to his grand-daughter Rada Čopi, Drašček was “a revolutionary at heart” - so it was no surprise that while he was being held at Tashkentin the Caucasushe became sympathetic to the cause and joined the Russian revolution.

However, the former blacksmith was captured again, this time by the anti-revolutionary White Guards - only to be saved by noblewoman Janina Elizabeta, who made up the story about their need to wed, allowing Drašček to be released.

The couple did eventually marry and settled back in Ozeljan with their three children.

But during all that time, the one item that Drašček took as a constant travelling companion was this battered wooden suitcase.

Wooden suitcase of Michael Drašček, undated, Europeana 1914-1918 / Rada Čopi, CC BY-SA
Wooden suitcase of Michael Drašček, undated, Europeana 1914-1918 / Rada Čopi, CC BY-SA
Passport of Janina Elizabeta Mazurkiewicz, undated, Europeana 1914-1918 / Rada Čopi, CC BY-SA
Passport of Janina Elizabeta Mazurkiewicz, undated, Europeana 1914-1918 / Rada Čopi, CC BY-SA
Postcard of a river/cliff scene along the Wolga river, undated, Europeana 1914-1918 / Rada Čopi, CC BY-SA
Postcard of a river/cliff scene along the Wolga river, undated, Europeana 1914-1918 / Rada Čopi, CC BY-SA

Prisoner of War creates religious scene

This richly decorated wooden cross in a bottle was created by a Russian Prisoner of War and brought in by our oldest contributor - 100-year-old Slovenian, Slavko Zupan.

Many Russian prisoners, brought from the Galician front, were used by the Austro-Hungarians to build roads, narrow-gauge railway lines, barracks, military storage and battlefield positions.

They lived in terrible conditions and many died because of infections, exhaustion, severe malnutrition and workplace accidents.

The prisoner who produced this bottle is thought to be one of the luckier ones who helped on farms and in homes in the Vipava Valley. These prisoners often created pieces of art, rings and bracelets of copper and iron which they could sell to Austro-Hungarian soldiers for a piece of bread or a cigarette.

Zupan, said his in-law, Rozina Pahor, a restaurant owner in Prvačina, bought it from a Russian Prisoner of War in 1916. He had carried the bottle from Russia and later inserted wooden carvings of a skull, cross and other symbolic figures.

Zupan, who lived in Ljubljana during WW1, said he could remember watching trains full of Prisoner of War being brought in from the front. The bottle, which is very similar to a ship in a bottle, is kept in his family home today.

Religious scene in a bottle created by a Russian Prisoner of War, 1916, Slovenia, Europeana 1914-1918 / Slavko Zupan, CC BY-SA
Religious scene in a bottle created by a Russian Prisoner of War, 1916, Slovenia, Europeana 1914-1918 / Slavko Zupan, CC BY-SA