World War II Memorabilia – Brass Tankards
Contributed by Tess Smallwood
In the refurbished VE Day display are two charmingly manufactured brass tankards depicting character-scenes from World War II. They are classic in shape; slightly tapered toward the rim, with large, angular and somewhat masculine handles. One has a gilt finish, the other has worn down through time and use to reveal the warm tones of the metal beneath. Both are engraved in the same signature style. In casual passing they may appear to you as just two more of so many military objects that the National Army Museum are thankful custodians of; but look a little closer and for a little longer and you will begin to detect something more of the sentiment that they embody. All our objects have a story to tell of the places that they have been and the things that they have seen; I would like to tell you something of these two tankards.
The engraved designs on our tankards are aesthetic and expressive. They illustrate a synopsis of the War with spirited figures, images and events that led to the successes which we celebrate annually on VE Day. They show nothing of the horror or gloom experienced, but rather they attest to the resoluteness of our brave and adventurous Kiwi ancestors who nobly fought against oppression. On the Italy tankard we see an Allied soldier make a courageous leap from Tunisia to Sicily, whilst one works his way up the boot of Italy to a group of surrendering Nazis in Genoa; The Kiwi Onward tankard has an iconic gondola to illustrate Venice and the Colosseum for Rome.
These tankards were commercially made and can be found in homes and museums across the world. However, the Onward tankard’s pattern was designed especially to remember New Zealand’s contribution to the war and it has the national symbol of the kiwi bird stamped along the border. It is only the decoration of these souvenir tankards that communicate our history – they are also made out of the debris of the battlefield. The National Army Museum currently holds three different patterns of these tankards. On each vessel is the stamped inscription “Brass Used for the Manufacture of this Tankard was Salvaged from the Battle Fields of World War II”. So, these vessels actually began their stories as the brass shells used in military bombardments. In a sense, these tankards are physical encapsulations of the war effort.
Old shell cases have been, and continue to be used as canvases for commemorative expressions since the South African War. Artistic (and sometimes not so artistic) soldiers could keep occupied by patiently and diligently creating a tangible memory of their time in battle. As the industrial scale of war bloomed this shell-art became ever more popular and handmade souvenirs were sent home as a link between soldiers in the battlefield and their loved ones. They were a memento that could be both touched and proudly displayed. Our tankards exploit this connection of past and place; they draw upon this very human means of association. One has to wonder what a returned soldier reminisced upon as he drank from his brass in his old age; or what a wife or child of the deceased imagined as they held it in their hands. We can perhaps only speculate, but for me there is something special about the idea that these fantastic objects have been recycled from the self-same metal that our ancestors fought with to win the war. Even more than that, they reveal our nature to transform destruction into creativity, whilst committing those past hardships into a means of remembrance.
So take a closer look to enjoy the boisterous characters on these tankards and spare a thought for the deeper story which they tell.
Take a look at some of our recent military artefact acquisitions.
Check out our Blog for the stories behind some of our other interesting museum artefacts.