Artifacts of the Great War

A collection of World War I objects, from the mundane to the extraordinary

The Red Baron's engine. (Imperial War Museums 2020.165.1)

The story of World War I will be told many times—and in many ways—as the centennial unfolds. In John Hughes-Wilson and Nigel Steel’s new book The First World War in 100 Objects (Firefly Books, 2014), the authors chose artifacts from the Imperial War Museums to illustrate different aspects of the conflict. “Rather than 100 purely generic or symbolic objects,” they write, “those chosen here invariably have particular stories to tell—of their makers, of their users and of how they were discovered or preserved....To really understand the First World War, it is as important to listen to the thoughts of an individual Tommy about his rations, or his wife’s disgruntlement of food queues back home, as it is to grasp the grand strategy of battles or the horrifying statistics of casualties.”

Here are a few objects related to the air war from their list of 100.  

Images and text reprinted with permission from the publisher. 

Sopwith Camel

Perhaps the best remembered British airplane is the Sopwith Camel, which entered service in the summer of 1917, helping to transform the Royal Flying Corps’ fortunes. It was a quirky machine, driven by a rotary engine that turned so quickly it would spin out of control. But skillful pilots used this unique characteristic to whip around faster than other aircraft and move them into a dominating position behind their opponents, turning the Camel into a superb fighting aircraft. This one, serial number N6812, was part of the newly formed Royal Air Force in 1918, though it was actually in naval service, towed on a floating launch ramp behind a destroyer. On August 11, 1918, it was patrolling the North Sea. Previous patrols had been threatened by Zeppelins flying overhead, and when one was spotted in the distance, Canadian-born Lieutenant Stuart Culley was ordered to take off from his precarious platform and shoot it down. For over an hour, Culley climbed at full throttle towards the distant airship. Once in position, he turned to attack with his two Lewis guns fixed on the upper wing. One jammed, but Culley still poured all the bullets from the other into the airship. As he pulled away, the Zeppelin ignited and plunged 18,000 feet towards the waves—the last ever to be shot down. Culley’s famous aircraft has been on display at the Imperial War Museum since 1935. 


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