World War I Relic Hunting


World War I Relic Hunting


By Daniel Bernzweig

The First World War was arguably the strangest war ever fought. For four years, between 1914 and 1918, millions of soldiers on the Western Front in northern France and the Italian front in the Alps fought each other primarily by living inside in trenches dug into the ground. Over and back, they fought in massively bloody engagements, generally to acquire a few kilometers of ground that had been so blitzed by artillery fire that it was nothing more than scorched mud. This was effectively what the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, and the Allied forces of Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and later the United States were fighting over for four years, although the overarching goal was to either seize or defend Paris.

Moreover, in the end, no clear victory was won for the Allies in 1918. In fact, in sheer numerical terms, Germany had gotten the better of it, and the British and the French lost many more men proportionate to what the Germans lost in northern France. However, with the domestic situation collapsing in Germany due to the British naval blockade on the country and its allies abandoning it, the Kaiser's government in Berlin was largely overthrown by a revolt of German soldiers and mariners across the country's main cities, effectively ensuring that the so-called 'Great War' came to an end before Germany itself was invaded. But while the trench warfare of the First World War was highly unusual, it had the benefit of leaving behind a bounty of buried war materiel for the enthusiastic metal detectorist, as we explore here. Germany's perceived threat was bolstered by the triple entente war effort, which included France, Russia, and Britain. Operations on the main Russian front and campaigns in Romania were part of the Eastern Front. Distances and disparities in equipment and troops ensured a fluidity of conflict lacking in the west.

One of the most puzzling events in history was World War One. Like a civil war, but faster. On June 28, 1914, a South Slav patriot, Gavrilo Princip, killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, triggering World War I. The espionage act, the killing of Archduke Ferdinand, led to a four-year conflict that mostly affected Central and Western Europe, parts of Asia, and Eastern Europe. Wilson, the 28th President, declared war on Germany during World War I, but this wasn't his intention. Despite his intention to remain neutral, he joined the American Red Cross and the American expeditionary force, which helped both sides. In 1917, the Zimmerman Telegram recommended that Germany and Mexico form a military alliance if the United States entered World War I. This intercepted message outrages the US, which joins in. German American citizens faced backlash, as the war began since their country of allegiance was under threat. Most of them were loyal to the US and patriotic. In fact, many of them joined the US military and fought in the European war. During World War I, Liberty Bonds were sold in America to support American forces. In Compiegne, France, at 11:00 a.m., on November 11, 1918, the Allied powers signed a ceasefire agreement with Germany, ending World War I. Today it is known as Armistice Day.

Weapons of the First World War

Quite understandably, in a war that eventually ended up involving nearly every major nation on Earth, the First World War saw a wide range of weapons being used. Many of these were highly innovative for their time. For instance, Zeppelin airships were deployed by Germany, while tanks were first employed by the British and French as part of the First Battle of the Somme in the autumn of 1916. Equally, while planes were being used for reconnaissance missions within days of the conflict beginning in August 1914, by the end of the war, complex fighter and bomber planes had been developed by all sides.

German U Boats - Submarine Warfare

It was during World War I that the first major war-time submarine warfare took place when German U-boats sank merchant ships belonging to the Allies. German U-boats engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare, which was illegal at the time under international law. The German troops began using submarines to combat the British Royal Navy's dominance of the Atlantic.

World War I Items You Can Find Relic Hunting With A Metal Detector

Relic hunting for World War I, World War II, the Civil War, the Cold War, and any other war reveals much history from decades ago in the East, the West, the Middle East, and Europe. In national archives, such as the Imperial War Museum (founded in 1917), these relics are usually kept in special places. During the First World War, the museum was intended to record civil and military war efforts for Great Britain and the British Empire. In addition to these five museums, there are also museums dedicated to other conflicts, such as the Second World War. Metal detectors can detect rifles, machine guns, grenades, bullets, and their fragments, as well as other weapons and artillery. In both wars, German forces and other European powers used these weapons. Stainless steel, tungsten, and iron were some of the metal types used to make these items. Bullets were mostly lead, knives were steel, and grenades were iron and steel. In both wars, these weapons had distinct shapes that varied greatly from those used by the armies. As well as being used in various war scenes like German submarine attack zones, the eastern front, and other battlefields.

Other Types of Weapons

Other weapons were much more nefarious, and there was chemical warfare engaged on the Western Front through the use of mustard gas. This substance was banned internationally through the Geneva Convention in 1925. However, our concern here is with guns, the physical remains of which one can still find when metal detecting on some of the main fronts in north-eastern France and elsewhere. Each major player had their own standard-issued rifle during the First World War. For the British and, by extension, their Commonwealth allies such as Canada, India, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, it was the Lee-Enfield MK1 Carbine Rifle, which had been adopted as the British army's standard rifle in 1895 and remained in use for decades. For the Germans, it was the Gewehr '98, a Mauser-developed bolt-action rifle that saw four decades of service between 1898 and the mid-1930s. The French used the Lebel-Berthier 8mm Rifle, while Italian soldiers were typically issued the Mannlicher-Carcano M1891 Rifle. The many nationalities which made up the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were typically issued with the Steyr-Mannlicher M95 Rifle. At the same time, the armies of Tsar Nicholas II from Russia fought the Germans and the Turks on their western and southern fronts armed with Mosin-Nagent M1891 Rifles.

The Turks had the least advanced firearms and, in 1914, were still using the Mauser Model 1871 Rifle as their standard firearm, despite models of this type having long been dispensed with by the other major powers. Finally, when the Americans finally entered the war in 1917, they began arriving in France in large numbers bearing the M1903 Springfield Rifle. While these standard-issue rifles were by far the most ubiquitous weapons of the First World War, many others were employed as well. Machine guns of a kind which were generally developed from the earlier Maxim and Gatling guns, which were explored in our article on the Spanish-American War of 1898, were also widely employed on all fronts. Indeed it was the machine gun, along with the use of mortars and artillery, which shaped the nature of the war. Trenches were needed as it was realized that sending masses of men running at the enemy position across open land was largely a suicide mission, given the new weapons which were available to all sides.

Soldier Uniform Parts: Helmets, Belts, Buttons, Buckles, and Shoes

Iron was the most common material used for soldier helmets and shoes. Buttons were made of brass, pewter, white metal, and silver plates. This included both honorary badges and uniform buttons. British buttons from World War I are some examples of buttons found. The royal service symbol was a coat of arms with a lion on the left and a unicorn on the right. There is a crown on the coat of arms, surrounded by the monarch's motto, Dieu et Mon Droit. Americans, Germans, and other fighting armies wore shoes with iron plates. Other findings are the Gordon Highlanders' shoulder belt plates and A First World War German Imperial Belt Buckle with the Iron Cross.

Bullets of the 'Great War'

These many rifles and other weapons employed varied types of bullets. This was a relatively novel development. As recently as fifty years earlier, most armies would have used the Minié Ball as a standard bullet regardless of what type of rifle they were carrying. A century ago, bullets were so unspecific that individuals could simply take the ammo off of fallen soldiers and use it in their own muskets. Things were different in 1914. The British Lee-Enfield MK1 Carbine Rifle used .303 British ammunition. By way of contrast, the Italians used 6.5 x 52mm Carcano bullets in their Mannlicher-Carcano M1891 Rifles. If one compares these two bullet types, one will see that these are distinctly different shapes, with the .303 bullet type having a pointed end like the tip of a pencil and the Carcano bullets being much more rounded, like the top of a space shuttle before it launches. Thus, by the time the First World War broke out, ammunition had become quite specific to specific guns. Other notable examples that one might discover while metal detecting include the .30-03 Springfield bullets used in the M1903 Springfield Rifle and the 7.92 x 57 mm Mauser ammunition employed by the Gewehr '98.

Military Buttons in the Early Twentieth Century

A vast array of buttons are extant from military uniforms, which were worn by the different sides in the First World War. Most sides used buttons made out of brass or material such as pewter and rubber during the First World War, while others were largely made of leather but often had a metallic connection at the back, so they can still be picked up by a metal detector. These buttons were not used solely to button up jackets and coats. For instance, British soldiers had shoulder straps on their uniforms which were secured with brass buttons. Similarly, they also wore peak caps which were secured using a strap that was clipped on with two brass buttons. These British buttons typically bore the royal service symbol, a picture of a coat of arms with a lion on the left and a unicorn on the right. A crown surmounts the coat of arms, and then written around it is the motto of the monarch of Britain, Dieu et mon Droit, meaning 'God and my right.' Other common types of First World War buttons that one might come across while metal detecting include the US army standard issue button bearing the federal seal of the eagle and the German imperial button, which is embossed with the crown of the Second German Empire.

Buckles of the First World War

As with buttons, there was no shortage of buckle types being produced for British, French, German, Italian, Austria, Turkish, Russia, American, Canadian, ANZAC, and Colonial troops during the First World War, and these carried a vast array of insignia symptomatic of the nationalities and divisions which wore them. Some of the most common types that one might discover are. At the same time, metal detecting is the US belt buckle bearing the federal seal or the German imperial belt buckle showing the Iron Cross surrounded by a wreath of laurels. Others can be much rarer and were given to specific units as part of their uniforms. Good examples are the shoulder belt plates that were given to the Gordon Highlanders. This was a Scottish regiment that was formed in 1881 and fought in British colonial regions such as India, Egypt, and South Africa. The shoulder plates issued to them during the First World War noted this overseas service and depicted a stag in the center of the insignia. Such buckles are rarer than the general service buckles issued to standard regiments, many of which were plain belt buckles.

Between 1916 and 1970, a great migration occurred due to the need for workers in northern industries, as this part of American history concluded.  After the war, African American soldiers and individuals moved to cities for better career prospects, better education, and modern amenities.

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