image Sweetheart Brooches

While the Museum is closed to the public our Education Officer is putting together activities for children staying at home. This week, we are encouraging children to design their own sweetheart brooch. For the grownups, we thought it would be interesting to republish an article that former Corps Archivist, Colonel (Retired) Mike Sibbons, wrote for the Craftsman magazine. This article, reproduced below, was printed in the February 2012 issue and discusses sweetheart brooches as a form of trench art.

You do not need me to tell you that Saint Valentine’s Day, commonly shortened to “Valentine’s Day” is an annual commemoration held on 14 February, celebrating love and affection between intimate companions.  The day is named after an early Christian martyr named Saint Valentine and was established by Pope Gelasius I in 946 AD and deleted from the General Roman Calendar of Saints in 1969 by Pope Paul VI.  It is, traditionally a day on which lovers express their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionary, personal mementos and sending greeting cards known as “valentines”.  The day first became associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages when the tradition of courtly love flourished.

During the war, soldiers took this custom a stage further and exchanged personal mementos to connect with the home front and strengthen bonds with loved ones back in the UK.  The tradition of sending home keepsake items actually started during World War I when the strain of the Great War made keeping in touch with the folks back home seem even more important.  Regimental badges made into pins and lockets, often called ‘sweetheart jewellery’ were made by soldiers and commercial firms to confirm the bond between soldiers at the front and their loved ones at home. 

Sweetheart brooches are, basically, small brooches depicting the regimental or other service crest of a soldier, sailor or airman and were worn by military wives or girlfriends.

2020-03-30 Brooch1995.3669

A metal and enamel sweetheart brooch from the Museum’s collection, 1995.3669.

Particularly popular around the era of the Great War (1914-1918), they were often given to wives or girlfriends (hence ‘sweetheart’) by servicemen as mementos and reminders of their absent loves. They would be worn by the lady as a token of fealty and regard, and also to show their pride in having a husband or sweetheart who was serving his country.

Traditionally, soldiers have always made decorative or souvenir objects in their spare time.  During the Napoleonic Wars, French prisoners of war interned in British prison camps created a variety of elaborate boxes, models and other pieces made from soup bones as well as marquetry boxes and similar items using plaited straw.  The Crimean War produced interesting souvenirs such as inkwells made from cannon balls. 

Projectiles with brass casings first produced in 1857, replaced cannon balls and other artillery ammunition as the century progressed.  The Spanish-American War and the Boer War were the first wars in which this type of ammunition was widely used.  Typical shell casing souvenirs from this period were engraved with the details of battles or inscribed as a ‘souvenir of the war’ or merely shaped into vases to be kept as decorative mementoes.

The First World War – “The Great War”, “The War to End All Wars” or “The War for Civilization” as it was variously called – evolved into a stagnant form of ‘trench warfare’ after the initial German invasion into Belgium in 1914.   Prolonged entrenchment of troops and a vast supply of the detritus of war provided an ever-expanding canvas for the talents of soldier-artists.  Decorated objects made from 1914 throughout the post-war period are generally referred to as ‘trench art’.

Trench art is a highly evocative term conjuring up the image of a mud-spattered soldier in a soggy trench hammering out a souvenir for a loved one at home while dodging bullets and artillery shells.  This is an appealing, but very false conception, of the reality of this art form.  A few types of trench art (finger rings made from melted down aluminium are a good example) could be made easily in a trench during lulls in the fighting, but the hammering involved in making many trench art pieces would have been greeted with unwelcome hostile fire from the enemy.  Trench art items made during the war were in fact created at a distance from the front line trenches either by soldiers ‘at rest’ behind the front lines, by skilled artisans among the civilian population, by prisoners of war, or by soldiers convalescing from wounds as handicraft therapy.

Pieces described as ‘trench art’ have a number of distinctly different origins:

  • War souvenirs collected by soldiers or non-combatants during the war and during the demobilization period and modified in some way to serve as a remembrance of the war
  • Souvenirs crafted by soldiers during the war
  • Souvenirs made for sale to soldiers by other soldiers or civilians during the war
  • Souvenirs made by prisoners of war in exchange for food, cigarettes or money
  • Mementoes of the war made by convalescent soldiers
  • Post-war souvenirs made for tourists visiting the battlefields

Many different types of trench art were made by soldiers, civilians, and prisoners of war during the war and afterwards.  Some artists used brass from shell casings modified in a number of ways; others used cartridge clips, shell fragments, damaged wooden propeller blades, and rifle cartridges to produce artistic souvenirs.  Artillery shell projectiles provided another site for painted designs, often very beautiful and elaborate.  The universal smoking habit of soldiers made tobacco humidors, lighters, match boxes covers or match safes, cigarette cases, ashtrays and snuff boxes popular items for artistic conversions from shell casings and cartridge clips. 

Letter openers or paper knives, often made in a scimitar style from pieces of flat brass soldered to cartridge casings, were a popular ‘trench art’ item, and an amazing number of these have survived.  The more interesting ones of this type are engraved with the names of battles or individuals.  Other letter openers utilized copper driving bands or shell fragments to create souvenir letter openers.  Napkin rings, another common domestic item, were made from scrap brass and less commonly from aluminium salvaged from crashed zeppelins. Coal scuttles and dinner gongs, mainstays of most households at the time, were replicated in trench art, often with intricate engraving.  Models of coal scuttles are sometimes referred to as sugar scoops or in the smaller 37mm size as salt scoops.  Picture frames were made from scrap brass or wood.  Wooden airplane propellers provided raw material for picture frames and clock cases. Aluminium from canteens or mess kits was transformed into a variety of objects unrelated to sordid everyday warfare.  Trench art finger rings were produced in quantity from brass, aluminium or from silver coins.  Indeed, there was a ‘thriving market’ for sweetheart jewellery manufactured from cap-badges and ‘collar-dogs’. In World War 2 perspex from aircraft canopies was frequently worked into jewellery and other souvenirs.

This sweetheart custom continued during World War II. One of the favourite ways to show patriotism and feel close to those serving our country was expressed through wearing a special piece of jewellery reflecting the branch of service a sweetheart, son or brother was representing. Whether in the form of a necklace, bracelet or pin, these patriotic symbols provide a heart-felt look back at the 1940s and beyond. 

2020-03-30 Brooch2015.7929

Another sweetheart brooch in the Museum’s collection, 2015. 7929.

Some of these, representing the original and current Corps badges, have been massed produced for sale by the REME Association.  Others have been made by soldiers from collar badges and a few have been produced in precious metal.

Often found at military collecting fairs, those familiar with service symbols have traditionally been attracted to these items more often than avid jewellery collectors. However, more and more, jewellery lovers and other collectors are beginning to appreciate these sentimental treasures.

These collectibles represent an era where practically the entire country backed the war effort.  Women moved into factory positions.  Working together to achieve a goal never meant more. A soldier gave this jewellery to someone special as a gesture of love and remembrance!

You can find out more about sweetheart brooches in this post, authored by Penny Streeter, on the History Workshop Journal website: http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/radical-objects-military-sweetheart-brooches-of-the-first-world-war/

When we are open to the public again you can view a selection of REME sweetheart brooches in or World War Two gallery. In the meantime you can browse some contemporary sweetheart brooches on the REME Shop website: https://remeshop.org.uk/?s=brooch&post_type=product.

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