This is a piece of First World War trench art and we can date it to exactly 100 years old give or take 60 days.
Trench art was originally made to pass the time by soldiers with whatever was to hand – brass shells, buttons, bullets and the like. After a while the locals started making pieces and selling them to the soldiers to take home for presents, as they did with silk postcards etc.
It is though clear that this letter knife was made by a soldier when he was in hospital.
The knife is 170mm long with a flat engraved “fish knife” blade soldered to a brass brass tube which is then soldered to a brass army coat button.
The blade is engraved Etaples 1919 on one side with 24 Gen Hosp on the other.
Etaples, Pas-de-Calais, was what was known as a base hospital in the Fist World War, base hospitals were part of the evacuation chain, further back from the line than clearing hospitals and usually near the coast and close to a railway line.
Etaples houses the largest Commonwealth War Commission cemetery in France.
The 24th general hospital was in use from June – November 1919.
Did the man who made this live a full life, die in the 24th or die shortly after the war? We will never know.
So, what is it worth?
It is 100 years old, hand made in a traceable place, a real piece of British history but only worth £35.00 tops. It would cost more that that for an Indian takeaway for two – some things just do not make sense.
As with medals we are often asked why theses pieces are not with the families of the soldier. Family lines do die out, if the soldier had no children (which was a strong possibility considering the young age of the typical man at the front) valuables would have been left to a sibling and passed down for a generation or so but then sold on, it could have been sold on by the original owner, gambled away or simply just lost.
What we do know is that we still have it, it is tangible, and I find it hard to believe that in 100 years’ time selfies and mobile phone photographs will be in existence.
If video tape deteriorates, servers break down and ink fades (unlike the illuminated manuscripts on velum of the middle ages) how will historians in two or three hundred years’ time research late Elizabethans in the UK? Probably through the amount of pollution we have left unfortunately.