Saturday, November 13, 2010

Can You Explain the World War I Veteran's Hand-Forged, Mysterious Monument to His Military Service?

Welsh World War I farrier veteran horseshoe
The word "souvenir" literally means "memory". This photo is reproduced with the permission of Keith O'Brien, a descendant of Isaac. According to Keith's description, which is a little hard to understand, there is a second shoe, on the other side of the foot.
When World War I ended, how did veterans commemorate their service? Surviving World War I was not easy and one can only imagine the emotions that the troops felt when they returned home. I've written a lot about farriers who served in World War I and how they took care of the horses during the war, but I honestly don't know much about what happened when they returned home to their families and forges.

In north Wales, a young man named Isaac Owen came home and made himself a little icon, or a trophy or a shrine, to his service in France during World War I. Which is it? You can decide. We're looking at it almost 100 years later, and we don't know what he did with it after he forged it and put so much work into it.

Did he put this out for all to see, as a trophy of pride, or did he work on it with great care and then, after polishing it to a glowing finish, did he wrap it in flannel and put it away, thus declaring it--and his experience in France--complete, and done, and get on with the rest of his life? Was this shoe found years later by his descendants, who might have wondered what it was, until they realized what the words meant? And did he make only one?

Ypres, Somme, and Armentieres were three battle sites. There were actually three battles in Ypres, a city in Belgium's Flanders district. In one, it is said that half the British troop involvement of 160,000 was either killed or wounded; all in all, 400,000 troops died there. When you hear the poem that begins, "In Flanders fields..." the reference is to the huge military cemeteries outside Ypres and other Flemish battle locations. I think the web site for the Ypres battles is one of the best military history web sites you can visit on the web.
John McCrea hand-written poem
"In Flanders Fields" was written by a Canadian doctor, John McCrae, who cared for the wounded at Ypres and was later killed in the war.
The battle of Somme in France in 1916 lasted 4 1/2 months and had 1.5 million human casualties. I read today that 100,000 horses died at Somme, and no doubt it was Isaac's job to try to keep them going. At the end of the bloody Somme standoff, the British and French advanced a total of six miles but did not succeed in capturing any towns from the Germans. Still, the British celebrated it as a victory, of sorts, to keep up the morale of the troops.

World War I war horse memorial at Somme
A relatively recent addition to Somme, France is the "Dying Horse Memorial", a tribute to the 100,000 horses who lost their lives in the World War I battle there. Isaac the Welsh farrier would have known their pain.
Finally, Isaac was part of the British occupation of Armentieres in France. This is the Belgian border town made famous in the racy song, Mademoiselle from Armentières. The Germans shelled the city with mustard gas in 1918, and the British forces had to evacuate the city, which was so badly contaminated that the Germans couldn't enter it.

After all this--four years of the worst battles on the very front edge of the war--did Isaac just go home to Wales, take his apron off the nail, and go back to work in his father's forge? Perhaps he acted like nothing had happened at all. How intent he must have been to keep his hand steady as he stamped the letters, one by one, of those French and Belgian battle sites into the face of that shoe.

Of course there could be much, much more to be told about wartime horseshoe souvenirs. Consider this World War I "trench art" horseshoe:

shrapnel horseshoe

This shoe was made by a British farrier who served in France. While he was shoeing a horse, the forge was shelled and the horse was killed. The farrier brought home a piece of the shrapnel from the shell and crafted this shoe from it to commemorate his good fortune to be alive.

You can visit Keith O'Brien's web site diary, which explores his family's history as farriers and smiths in a tiny village in Wales. As part of a Welsh language preservation project, the family's story was published by the BBC, but Keith has shared the old photos with captions in English in a slide show

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The Turk said...

I enjoyed this very much: As the grandson of a WWI vet, the son of a Vietnam vet, and a Persian Gulf War vet myself, I've learned it's not easy to get into the head of the men who return and understand exactly what objects they kept to stay connected, and you always stay connected. Great writing as always. I have my well read copy of Tom Ainsiles handicapping book to remember the long nights away from home.

Gail Meyer said...

One of the very best you have posted. The links connected with iy are fascinating. Thank you for posting this.
Gail Meyer
Ocala, Florida

jan de Zwaan said...

Hello Fran,
Thanks for the interresting story.

I am farrier in the Netherlands and visit every year a part of the trench war in northern France.

Jan de Zwaan