Category Archives: Personal Kit

Royal Navy Comforts Bag

Tonight’s object is a little bit of a mystery. Last week I picked up this cotton drawstring bag for a few pounds:imageIt measures 13”x14” and has ‘G Dawson’, a serial number and the letters ‘RN’ for Royal Navy inked to the top:imageIt is secured with a cotton tape acting as a drawstring round the neck of the bag:imageIt was clearly used by a sailor, the question then is what was its purpose? I am reliably informed that it is not an official piece of Royal Navy kit issued by the Admiralty, however it does match identical bags given out by the Red Cross to men as personal comforts bags. These were free issues to men and would have contained some wash products like soap and razors as well as cigarettes, knitted goods etc. Whilst it seems most of these bags were issued to prisoners of war, comforts were also supplied to serving soldiers and sailors, as seen here:CaptureInterestingly if you were a serving sailor any comforts you were given were marked off in your kit book, so if you got a hand knitted woollen hat from a comforts committee, you didn’t get an Admiralty issue one as well! Here we see a large pile of comforts that have been brought aboard HMS Ramillies for distribution to sailors:large_000000A similar comforts committee was set up for merchant seaman, as recalled here:

My father was always a good organiser. He had a knack of persuading and encouraging folks to get things done. As a baker he realised how important was the role of the merchant navy so he chose as his war effort to work for the merchant navy comforts service. A committee was formed of local business men in land-locked Cannock to raise funds and to work for the M.N.S.C. in any way possible and my father played a leading role on this committee.

The purpose of the M.N.S.C. was to provide parcels of warm clothing to be handed to merchant seamen as soon as possible once they had been rescued from the icy Atlantic or wherever. (It will be remembered that Hitler’s submarines nearly won the battle of the Atlantic and thousands of merchant ships were sunk during the war. There was great loss of life. Yet some merchant seamen actually survived several ships going down underneath them) Items of clothing could be bought but also a great deal of knitting was done to make up the parcels. Each parcel contained a label stating which M.N.S.C. group it had come from and I have 12 letters from people who benefited from receiving parcels and who, in spite of the plight took time and trouble to write and say thank you. Incredibly the list includes a U.S. air force pilot who was shot down in the Mediterranean, and an Australian airman shot down in the sea off the coast of Australia. An emergency rescue kit contained 10 articles of clean dry clothing, 3 knitted and 7 manufactured. In one 2 year period 85,000 emergency rescue kits were sent on active service. (They were usually carried on destroyers who rescued the merchant seamen.)

I remember my father having telephone calls with Mr Kirkland Bridge who was one of the king-pins of the national M.N.S.C. organisation. Of course, most of M.N.S.C. groups were situated in ports or places associated with the sea, so it was quite something that Cannock and district were the first area to have an M.N.S.C. week. During that week, which took much preparation and a great deal of hard work, £4,500 was raised- more than double the target! A great deal of money in those days! I remember mother looking after us four boys being a bit fed up sometimes, that dad, after long hours at the bakery had to dash off to M.N.S.C. meetings so frequently.)

Another surprising thing that the M.N.S.C did was to collect and provide books for ship-wrecked sailors to read. My father was once telephoned to see if he could find 1000 books for this purpose. Through his various contacts he gathered 4500 in just 7 days!!

Bull’s Head Can Opener

Tonight’s object is not actually military, however there is evidence to suggest it was used quite extensively by troops in a number of wars so I hope you will find it as interesting as I do.

The development of canning in the early 1820s was to revolutionise the delivery of rations to troops in the fields. Cans kept meat fresh and edible for long periods and although heavy they were relatively easy to transport. The only problem with early canned foods was opening the tins themselves! Instructions on the labels invited the consumer to use a hammer and chisel, for soldiers bayonets were also likely implements to open the tinned goods! Tinned goods did not start becoming common on the civilian market until the 1860s and by this point can openers had been developed. The most common design for the next sixty years was made of cast iron in the shape of a bull:imageThese were often painted red and the front of the opener includes a spike and a blade along with a stylised bull’s head:imageThe back of the can opener had a bull’s tail:imageThis example is a civilian opener, but GR marked examples have been seen. Although soldiers carried a tin opener on their jack knives, this larger can opener would have been much easier to use, especially on some of the large 7lb tins of bully beef that were supplied to feet larger groups of men. Archaeological evidence has found examples of these bull head can openers on American Civil War battlefields, Boer War battlefields and on the Western Front indicating they were indeed used. Here an example was found in South Africa:

I found the head and half the handle of one in Mooi River(South Africa) whilst leveling sites for house construction. The site was camp to a division of the red coats during the Anglo Boer war 1899. The site was riddled with rifle cartridges, cavalry buckles, ink wells etc.

Tinned goods really came into their own on the Western Front in World War One and corned beef, commonly known as ‘Bully Beef’ became synonymous with the British Tommy. Strict guidelines were issued to manufacturers to detail what should go into a tin:

The carcasses of cattle in prime condition not under two or over four years of age… Each 12oz. tin to contain not more than ½ oz., and each 24oz. tin not more than 1oz., of clear jelly made from soup stock and soup bones.

As well as corned beef, men were issued tins of ‘Machonochie’s stew’, a somewhat dubious meat and vegetable stew tinned and sent out to the front. This was designed to be eaten hot and contained a large amount of animal fat, unfortunately there was seldom time to heat the tins so they had to be eaten cold and this turned them into a greasy solid mass that was not popular. Tins could also go off if not correctly canned, the best way to detect this was to puncture them with a bayonet- if the tin hissed then it was best to leave it well alone!

A private serving in the Middle East recalls:

One of the features of the night marches was the frightful stink. The Maconochie’s stew ration gave the troops flatulence of a particularly offensive nature. So we marched along on air released by hundreds of men breaking wind.

There is still debate as to how widespread the use of the bulls head tin opener was by World War One, however if not widespread there is certainly indication that some carried and used them and this example will be joining my other personal kit in my 08 pattern haversack._74383704_q1580_iwm_soldiers_eating

Royal Navy Boot Brush (Part 2)

Last year we looked at an example of a Royal Navy boot brush here. Last week I was lucky enough to find another example of these brushes:imageThis example is a little smaller than the previous brush, but allows me to make up a nice pair:imageLike all these brushes, this one is dated, here it is 1919:imageAnd to show it is Royal Navy owned, it is stamped with an abbreviation for ‘Admiralty’:imageIt is this stamp that has warranted a post on a subject we have ostensibly already covered. Here the boot is marked as ‘ADMY’, the previous example was marked ‘ADLY’:imageQuite why this variation in marking exists is a little puzzling as one would suspect that the stamp for ownership was already made up, rather than being made of individual letters. That being the case the abbreviation should be standardised, but it is not. I wonder if the marking is dependent on which naval institution took delivery of the stores and marked them up. Whilst of no great significance I thought this was an interesting variation that might be of interest to some- all Royal Navy boot brushes are hard to find so it is instructive to have a pair to contrast.

War Department Marked Safety Razor

It is odd that it has taken me nearly ten years of collecting to finally add a British Army marked razor to my collection. I must confess I have not yet found one ‘in the wild’ and this example came from eBay and cost rather more than I would normally pay, but it fills an important gap in my personal kit collection:imageThis safety razor has never been issued and came in its original paper packet from the store:imageThe razor itself breaks down into three parts, the handle unscrews and the top piece splits into two pieces:imageThe top cover of the razor is marked with the /|\ acceptance mark, a date of 1945 and a maker’s name of A.S & Co:imageI believe this stands for the ‘Autostrop Razor Company’. This was a London company and this advert for a different design of razor dates to 1919:Im1919DMYBk-AutoAlthough the US had issued safety razors in World War One, and many British troops had privately purchased them, the British Army still officially issued cut throat razors until 1926 when a contract was placed with the Gillette Company Ltd to replace these with safety razors. This created debate in the Houses of Commons:

Mr. STORRY DEANS (by Private Notice)asked the Secretary of State for War whether it is the policy of his Department to contract with manufacturers and not with merchants or agents for the supply of goods for the use of the Army; whether he is aware that the Gillette Company Limited, to whom a contract for safety razors has been given, is not a manufacturing company; that it does not own or work either the factory where the razors are made or the factory where the blades are made; whether he is aware that both these factories are owned by an American company; and what is the reason for departing from the usual practice of the Department in the case of this contract?

The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Sir Laming Worthington-Evans) The normal practice of the Department is to place contracts only with manufacturers, but where the manufacturer has a sole selling agent we are perforce obliged to contract with the selling agent if we wish to purchase the goods. The razor-holders are to be made at Slough, and the blades in Canada.

Major-General Sir ALFRED KNOX (by Private Notice)asked the Secretary of State for War whether his attention has been drawn to a letter from the managing director of the Auto-Strop Safety Razor Company which appeared in the “Times” of 18th October; and whether it is a fact that the offer of that company would have provided for Army requirements of safety razors “without a penny of expense to the British Treasury”?

Sir L. WORTHINGTON-EVANS Yes, Sir, my attention has been drawn to the letter. It is, of course, not customary to disclose tenders, but since the letter would give an entirely false impression, I think it right to say that, had the offer been accepted, it would have meant a cash payment of some 60 per cent. in excess of that under the existing contract.

Sir A. KNOX Will the right hon. Gentleman state whether that price includes the expense of the strops as well?

Sir L. WORTHINGTON-EVANS I believe it includes some of the strops, but the rest would have had to be paid for extra.

The 1943 British Army Clothing Regulations indicate that a single safety razor was issued to each man at the start of his time in the army, but then was maintained form his own funds, with replacement blades and new razors being bought form the NAAFI rather than being issued by the military. The blades used in these razors were made of carbon steel rather than the stainless steel used in modern blades and this resulted in them rusting easily, so care had to be taken to clean and dry blades after use.

This little safety razor is definitely on the cheaper end of the scale, a contemporary Ever Ready example I have been using up to this point in my wash roll is far better made, however this is to be expected when military contracts are involved! For a review of the shaving capabilities of this little razor head over to the blog’s Facebook page for more information.image

Ear Plugs

Today ear protection is commonplace in the military, but during the Second World War ear plugs were not general issue items. Some units, especially those exposed to loud noise such as artillery, were issued sets of ear plugs and it is a pair of those we are looking at tonight:imageThese plugs are made from a malleable rubber, that has now hardened, with a conical hollow plug:imageUnfortunately one of the plugs has become distorted with age and hardened with a distinct ‘squish’ to one side- however as I won’t be wearing them it’s not a major problem. The plugs are attached together with a piece of string, tied over a groove on the end of each one:imageThe string made it marginally harder to lose the ear plugs… however being small items I imagine they were easily misplaced. Len Taylor was a gunner and recalls the dangers of not wearing ear plugs whilst manning the guns:

One of the first things I remember about the Blitz was arriving on the outskirts of London, where we took over a gun site with four 3” Naval Guns and a Command Post. We thought these guns looked rather small, as we had done all of our training on much larger guns and had got familiar with the blast, so when we got called out on the same afternoon to intercept three Stuka Bombers, we manned the guns without our ear plugs.

The Bombers attacked the factories we were guarding, so we opened up with our ‘small’ guns but soon realised our mistake when our ears were badly punished. We had not realised that the smaller the shell in artillery the worse the crack of sound. As the guns get larger the sound from them develops from a crack which really hurts your ears to a sound more like a roll of thunder which is not so painful. We were very careful to wear our earplugs after that lesson.

In this photograph of anti-aircraft gunners, the ear plugs can just be seen as black dots on their ears:imageAs could be expected for such small and easily lost items, ear plugs are not common finds today and this pair, despite some perishing to one, are in pretty good condition and make a nice little addition to the collection.

Royal Navy Boot Brush

One item of militaria that regularly comes up on Huddersfield Market are army boot brushes, indeed they are so common I have restricted myself to pre-war examples and not paying more than a pound each for them. By contrast Air Ministry and Admiralty marked brushes are far rarer and I was very pleased to finally add a Royal Navy example to my collection a couple of weeks ago for the princely sum of 50p:imageUnlike army brushes which are marked with a /|\ stamp, Royal Navy brushes have ‘ADMY’ stamped into them:imageThis particular brush is dated either 1922 or 1923, but the stamp is very indistinct and I cannot make out the last digit very easily:imageThe original owner has marked it up with his surname ‘Hutchinson’:imageOne distinguishing feature of these early brushes is they often have a number of small brass nails visible on the back:imageRoyal Navy ratings were issued two boot brushes and were required to mark them with their name to indicate who they belonged to. On board ship, sailors normally kept their boot brushes in their ‘ditty’ box along with other small ‘necessaries’ and personal items. These brushes were remarkable well made, hence their survival to the present day. One sailor who joined in the 1950s remarks, The boot brushes issued, with your name stamped upon must be strong, mine are still in service, having seen me through a police career of daily polishing after 12 years RN service.

Another sailor who was serving in the 1960s recalls using boot brushes to scrub the deck of his accommodation block during initial training. In this kit layout the brushes can be seen front and centre:15894770_10154830912618428_9167821151663050466_n

WW1 Regimentally Marked Spoon

Possibly the most important piece of equipment for a soldier is his spoon! World War one era military issue spoons are quite distinctive and tonight we are looking at a wonderfully marked example that has seen at least three users. My thanks go to Taff Gillingham for his help in filling in some of the blanks with this object. This spoon is particularly large, equivalent to a modern tablespoon, and has what is known as a ‘fiddle back’:This pattern of spoon was introduced in 1894 under pattern 3910/1894 and is made of cupronickel. It was to remain in service throughout the Great War, although it was supplemented by a new pattern in 1917 that more closely resembles the ‘teardrop’ handle of today. It is common to find one edge of the spoon sharpened and ground down, as in this example:This made it easier to get the spoon into every part of a D-Shaped mess tin and acted as a simple knife for cutting up food with. Soldiers tended to discard knives and forks and just carry a spoon, often to be seen tucked into their puttees:Veterans recalled that in the trenches the preferred method of cleaning a spoon after use was to push it into the ground two or three times until it was clean! Having said that if the mud was particularly thick then the spoon was often carried in the breast pocket for ease of access. This example belonged to various members of the 4th West Yorkshire Regiment as witnessed by the service numbers stamped into the front of the fiddle back:Further numbers are to be seen on the back, these are different and its seems this spoon went through the hands of at least three different men:Whilst this is unusual, it was not unheard of as kit tended to get recycled and reused. This spoon was a lucky find on eBay for 99p and is definitely a favourite of mine. It will be going into my wash roll with my WW1 kit and may well see service again!