Untold Stories of the First World War

People in documents


While some people kept diaries, most made no conscious effort to record their lives and experiences for posterity. But remembrance can take many forms, and many artefacts documenting the ordinary man and woman have been turned up by the project. Some, like a soldier’s pass book, may describe his physical appearance or period of service. Others, like ration tickets and proclamations, detail the conditions of hardship his family was forced to endure. Often, the significance is in what was saved, such as a specific newspaper cutting, the record of death, or the photograph of a sweetheart. Here we have a selection of stories that indicate why these scraps of paper and other objects have become such an important part of people’s family history.

Ticket to treatment

While it’s clear he was wounded in action, German soldier Erwin Schröter was one of the lucky ones.

The single red stripe on this little ticket indicates that he was well enough to be carried away from the battlefield to a dressing station or hospital.

The chit, which resembles a luggage label, was attached to a soldier’s jacket when he was wounded.

This early treatment system allowed for just three very stark possibilities. Two red stripes meant the soldier was so badly injured he could not be moved. For most this was the end of the road and it was likely the unfortunate person would expire where he lay.

One stripe meant they were wounded, but could be moved. And if there were no stripes at all, the wearer was classed as “walking wounded” and fit enough to make his own way to the dressing station.

Schröter’s label is dated February, 1915, and indicates that he was a ‘Vizefeldwebel’, or staff sergeant. It was contributed by Dr Margrit Behncke, of Berlin.

Escapade causes first major warship casualty

The thrilling tale of how a German liner sneaked through British sea barriers to lay mines that caused the sinking of the first British battleship in WW1 is recorded in the diaries of seaman Rudolf Kämmerer.

S.M. Berlin, a passenger ship converted into a minelayer, left Wilhelmshaven on October 17, 1914, loaded with 200 sea mines. Undetected, it circumnavigated Scotland, and reaching the Irish Sea laid the mines off Tory Island.

Sure enough, British battleship HMS Audacious struck one of the mines a short distance from Loch Swilly on October 27 - and despite several attempts to tow the crippled ship, she sank with the loss of no lives.

In his extensive report about the escapade, along with colour maps and field postcards, Kämmerer tells how the ship attempted to return to Germany, but was forced to put in to Hommelsvik, near Trondheim, in neutral Norway, where the liner was interned and the crew detained for the duration of the war.

Diary of Rudolf Kämmerer

Soldiers settle into country life in Luxembourg

Despite Luxembourg's neutrality, German forces entered the Grand Duchy in August 1914.

For most Luxembourgers World War I meant four years of hardship and food shortages, while others volunteered to join Allied armies.

Receipts brought into the Luxembourg roadshow reveal that German troops stationed in Koerich relied on local farmers to provide them with board, lodgings and feed for their horses.

One chit, written in pencil on a scrap of paper, which says: “Certified by Mr Henry Moes to receive for 12 horses in Koerich hay and straw,” was signed by Josias, the hereditary Prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont, a Lieutenant who later became infamous as a high ranking SS officer.

Other receipts contributed by Thillenvogtei - a private rural museum in Wahl which has a diverse collection of objects from the 1914-1918 war - show that three officers, 19 sergeants and 133 teams were housed by farmers in 1914.

When German forces were finally withdrawn from Luxembourgin November 1918, American troops were welcomed, and Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde abdicated amid unrest.

The receipts were donated by the Mamer family, of Koerich. They had stored them in a box for many years before giving them to the museum.

War hero’s souvenir from enemy plane

This wooden gift box made from the remnants of a crashed Italian aircraft propeller gives a fascinating insight into the war exploits of courageous Slovenian pilot Julian Kenda.

The 22-year-old reserve lieutenant with the 12th aircraft unit of the Austro-Hungarian air force carried out 29 sorties over the battlefields of the Isonzo Front and had 15 air battles between July 1916 and February 1917.

Kenda, who spoke Italian, was relocated to Mavhinje, Italy, to talk to the crew of an Italian Caproni Ca I aircraft that was shot down on December 3, 1916, by Baron Gottfried Banfield and Captain Godwin Brumowski.

Only the lieutenant was capable of speaking; a non-commissioned officer lost his life, while two pilots were wounded. As a souvenir, Kenda took part of the Caproni’s broken propeller with him. It was later turned into a gift box.

Kenda, who was born in Bovec, died aged 23 on March 1, 1917, alongside Corporal Franz Neuwirthom, after their Hansa Brandenburg C.I plane was shot down in flames and crashed in Hudi Log, Slovenia.

During his service he received three medals for his bravery, and posthumously, he was awarded the Military Merit Medal (Signum Laudis) and the Military Merit Cross.

His distant relatives, from Zgonik, kept part of his estate, including some documents, a school diary, albums of photographs and 70 aerial shots.

“Joke” document shows soldier being deloused

One of the most amusing items uncovered during Berlin’s roadshow was this black and white “delousing” chit.

Looking rather like a cartoon bank note, this comic piece of memorabilia informed the bearer that he was now clean and free of the vermin of the trenches. A picture shows a smiling soldier dunked in an old beer barrel and washed by a colleague using a watering can.

Dated from May, 1917, it’s likely the item was limited to one German unit, possibly the Prussian medical corps, and may therefore be quite uncommon.

It was brought in by Helga Berger, along with an English Prisoner of War clothing record belonging to her relative Max Berger. Dated 1918, the card lists Berger as having received a haversack, mess tin, water bottle, two pairs of flannel drawers, one pair of braces, a toothbrush, two pairs of socks, cutlery and two hospital pattern handkerchiefs.

Keeping students’ memories alive

Teacher Hans Hansen Lindorff was so proud that 71 of his pupils went off to fight for the Germans in WW1 he wrote biographies on each and every one of them.

In a dark-covered journal, adorned with an iron cross, Lindorff’s distinctive neat German script gives details about the 15 young men who were killed in the war, followed by shorter entries on their 56 surviving comrades.

The pupils attended Bæk School, in Bæk, near Vojens, in Southern Jutland, which at the time was part of northern Germany. About 30,000 men from the region served in the German army during the war.

While Lindorff, grew up in a Danish-friendly family, he was very German-focused, said his niece, Maja Christensen, who donated the book. On its final page, he describes how proud he is of his flock; that they all fought valiantly, did their duty for the Kaiser and stayed the course.

But Inge Adriansen, curator at the Museum of Southern Jutland’s Sønderborg Castle branch, said: “This doesn’t mean they all went to war happily.

“In fact, one of them cut his index finger off trying to avoid service. One shot himself in the foot and one even jumped from the roof of a barn.”

War records solve the mystery of soldier’s missing finger 

For most of his adult life, William Rose Townhill’s family assumed he had lost the ring finger on his left hand during a feat of derring-do in the First World War.

But almost 100 years after the injury, copies of his hospital notes and logbook revealed he was actually injured while going for a smoke during operations inFrance.

“My grandad’s pipe was broken so he thought he would fix it with a copper tube,” said his grandson Alan Townhill, of Preston. “But he soon realised he was cutting through a detonator and it exploded, causing him to lose his finger.”

The Royal Field Artillery 34th Division gunner and driver was not charged for the offence. But according to his log book, his pay was docked for 15 days.