The Biscuit Barrel

trench art biscuit barrel

The piece of WW1 Trench Art in the picture was originally owned by my Great Uncle, Lieutenant James Bernard Smith (1893-1980) of Glen Innes, NSW. It is a wooden barrel with lid reminiscent of a biscuit barrel, circa 1918. The badge inscription reads “Made from propellor of a German aeroplane captured at Rayak Palestine Nov 1918”.

For as long as I could remember growing up, it sat on the mantelpiece above the unused fireplace, that is until my parents moved house whereupon it had a variety of places before it eventually came to me. My mother told me it had originally belonged to Uncle Jim Smith, husband of her mother’s sister, Annie who was a soldier in World War I but the story behind the badge inscription had always intrigued me – why would a soldier have, let alone be allowed to keep, a propeller from a German plane and what was he doing in Palestine? No-one could answer me.

Uncle Jim Smith had married my grandmother’s sister, Annie Tincknell in 1923 while his cousin, Alexander Morris Smith had married Annie’s youngest sister, Hilda in 1929. The barrel has been a rather treasured possession in our family since it passed into the possession of Hilda Smith (nee Tincknell) sometime after Jim’s wife, Annie died in 1927. Hilda then passed it on to her niece and my mother, Joan, in the 1960s and it passed into the possession of me, her daughter, for safekeeping in the 1980s. Jim and Annie did not have any children, so the barrel has been passed on only to trusted persons in the family who could be relied on to care for it. It makes a really useful ornamental knick knack box to store small items and that has always been what it was used for. I doubt very much that it would be very successful as a biscuit barrel.

Learning about museums at University encouraged me to research Uncle Jim, the barrel and the history of trench art a little more. I discovered that, in spite of its name, trench art was rarely actually made in the trenches. However, pieces of scrap material, faulty ammunition and other “trophies of war” like the propellers of captured aeroplanes were often fashioned into souvenirs during quiet times, a period of convalescence or after a return home from combat. Decorated objects made of war materials from 1914 onward are those commonly known as trench art even though it has been a common past time of soldiers and sailors for centuries. The objects they made usually had a personal and, sometimes, spiritual significance to the owners recalling their experiences of war. I have many other examples from my father and his time in the Navy during the Second World War.

Our barrel though is a more unusual example of trench art, as the items usually crafted from wooden propellers were photo frames, clocks and boxes. It is also a highly skilled piece of craftsmanship in its own right but is unknown whether Uncle Jim actually made it himself or had someone else make it for him.  Research into other collections has not revealed anything of similar shape.

James Bernard Smith was 21 years old when he joined the A.I.F. He was one of the original ANZACs arriving at Gallipoli on 16 May 1915 and remained there to be one of the very last to leave during the evacuation in December.  Life and death situations would have been his experience many times over. He, himself, was wounded in action in the Middle East in July 1918 and he was also mentioned in despatches. After recovering from his wounds he was then seconded to 1st Squadron Australian Flying Corps and this would explain how the propeller, or part of it, came to be in his possession. Most certainly the barrel would have had special personal and spiritual significance for him as a reminder of his time in Palestine and his experiences throughout the war.

His barrel also has spiritual and historical significance for us, his indirect family, and for others who view it, as they are reminded that he was one of many who volunteered to serve in the Great War and endured its horrific battlefield conditions. Along with other examples of trench art, it is an object of remembrance to honour and respect the sacrifices of soldiers of war, especially in the Great War, and the initiation of Australia as a nation.

The badge needs to be analysed further to ascertain its material as it may have been made from metal also belonging to the plane. This is often a feature of trench art made from aeroplane material. Also its association with Palestine seems to be unusual. As is the case with this piece, Trench Art is mostly found in private collections. However, since the end of World War II, personal memories and the popularity of Trench Art has dwindled with much of it returning to the scrap heap from whence it came, all the more adding to its historical value and significance. Eventually, in time, I will pass it, along with the story, on to one of my family.

Lest We Forget



©Lynette Nunn 2016


8 thoughts on “The Biscuit Barrel

  1. Sandi McGinnis says:

    Lyn, we have a piece of Trench Art from WWII from Bob’s dad. It is several shell casings on a piece of propeller base & made into a photo frame with a picture of Bob’s dad in his uniform. It was made by one of the soldiers in his command. Definitely special to us! We are away from our home (spending the winter on the TX Gulf coast) but if I can remember will send you a picture of it. Enjoyed learning about your Biscuit Barrel.


  2. cassmob says:

    What a great story Lyn! You’ve researched it so well and laid it out for us to follow. Isn’t it wonderful to have such an evocative pice being passed on and cared for in the family?! I’ve certainly never seen anything other trench art like it and it would have required skilled workmanship to turn it…perhaps one of his mates did it for him once they came home.

    Liked by 2 people

    • genielynau says:

      Thanks Pauleen, I was originally inspired to do this when I found some research for someone else and on the printed page was notes about various items of jewellery, paintings etc held by various family members c 1870s saying who had what and the provenance of everything – it fascinated me because lots of people have things handed down but the real story has been lost over the generations. I was very excited when I found it even though it was nothing to do with my family.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. crissouli says:

    Lyn, yet again such an interesting story. I’m not sure if you chose your ancestors well, or they chose you as they knew you would preserve their stories and their treasures. This is an impressive piece with a great history.

    Liked by 1 person

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