First World War keepsakes

First World War keepsakes
Keepsakes of war in My Brother Jack
29 July 2016

Over the next few months there will be a number of anniversaries marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest battles of the First World War. The battle began on 1 July 1916 and continued on until 18 November. It includes the Battle of Fromelles which was fought over 19-20 July in which Australian army suffered over 5,000 casualties in one night.

We have many collections and souvenirs relating to the experiences of Australian soldiers on the Western Front. You can find out more in our First World War research guide.

Various First World War souvenirs from the Library’s collection including embroidered silk post cards nla.obj-233222294 and Violet Day badges nla.cat-vn2604388 and nla.cat-vn771616

The power of souvenirs to remind us of the First World War is beautifully captured in George Johnston’s classic Australian novel My Brother Jack. The lead character, David Meredith, reminisces about how he grew up in the shadow of the war. Everywhere in his childhood home there are keepsakes of the war. On the hall stand there is a souvenired German gas mask and a collection of crutches used by invalid soldiers who boarded with his parents. The bathroom smells of the ointments used by the scarred diggers. In his parents’ bedroom closet Meredith discovers his father’s service revolver, medals, badges, elaborate French silk post cards, and copies of the ‘Illustrated War News’. These objects held a fascination for the young boy as he struggled to understand what his parents had been through during the war.

When the Somme offensive drew to a close in November 1916 the allied forces had only managed to advance 12km. After a massive loss of life and resources little had been achieved. The soldiers serving on the Western Front, however, were changed forever.

Comment: 
I have a collection of over 100 of these beautiful, profoundly moving silk postcards. My collection began when I discovered a muslin bag in the bottom of my grandmother's wardrobe after her death in 1972. These letters, cards and various other WW1 keepsakes were sent from Egypt and France by her brother and several friends, one of whom was killed. The cards were embroidered by French women. My other silk cards, purchased mainly from antique shops, have patriotic themes or embroidered words eg. 'To My Dear Wife' 'To My Dear Mother from Your Loving Son', 'God Bless Until We Meet Again' 'Happy Christmas'and saddest of all 'To My Dear Child'. Rarer cards show the Australian flag and the 'Rising Sun Emblem'. The Australian War Memorial also has an extensive, beautiful collection including a rare 'Kangaroo - Australian Flag' card.