A few months ago, an old pipe came across my desk. A weathered French estate, it was carved with the names of French cities in a loose, awkward hand, as if done with a pocket knife. It was a trench pipe — a piece carried by a soldier in WWI, when the war took young men to fight in places they had only ever heard of before.
I almost bought it on the spot. I'm a sucker for old things, and pipes with history court me with their untold stories. It sent me on a path of research — there was no hope of finding the original owner's name, but what I did discover painted a broader picture of not just pipes, but the world as it looked during the height of the Great War.
The Home Front
Pipe smoking was the primary form of tobacco use during the early days of the war. Pipes connoted authority and, thus, demanded respect, which was sought after by many. More practically, they were the most accessible means of tobacco consumption by a large margin. So accessible, in fact, that almost every military force in Europe provided pipe tobacco as part of their soldier's rations — even if, in some cases, it wasn't of the best quality.
The Great War was not a quick conflict, however. Trench warfare took a toll on both supplies and morale. Soldiers wrote constantly to their families, requesting tobacco be sent to them. Lieutenant William Britt, an Australian soldier, did exactly that in a letter to his mother, after he was injured at Gallipoli.
"A little present of Havelock tobacco would be very acceptabel. [sic] Don't send too much in case I don't get it. Ta Ta."
The reaction on the home front was nearly universal. Not only did individuals send care packages to their friends and family, but charitable organizations sprung up to help in the effort, with some created specifically for the purpose of collecting and distributing tobacco to soldiers.
In the same letter from Lieutenant Britt, I found more than just a request for tobacco. There was something very unique tucked into his description of Gallipoli: a reference to one of his most prized possessions:
"They spotted me at last and peppered the bush I was lying behind. I had to keep my head down I can tell you. All they did was to shoot a hole through my pocket and smash the stem of my pipe which I wouldn't have sold for a £1. I had carved it with all the names of the places we had been to."
This passage caught my attention. It was not uncommon, it seemed, to use one's pipe as a makeshift travel journal. And it seems reasonable, after some thought — amongst all of the things a soldier was expected to carry, his pipe might be the only one that was his, and the only one he could hope to keep. It was important enough that he was willing to carry it, along with 30lbs of equipment. It was also important enough that he would not sell it — £1 in 1915 was the equivalent of around £100 today, a large sum for a soldier living on rations.
The only similar item I can think of from the modern age is the "Vietnam Zippo." The tool was ubiquitous in the military world post-WWII, and nearly every soldier carried one. Those who didn't could purchase them for less than $2 at their station, with small tents readily available for engraving. The phenomenon of the Vietnam Zippo garnered attention in the 2000s, when a large collection went up for auction and was photographed for a full-color book on the subject. The lighters range in style and message, each offering a glimpse into the lives of the men who carried them and the mindset that might have spurred them to carry such a trinket. This, I imagine, is one of the few obvious parallels to the pipes of WWI — items that create a physical record of a moment, lest it disappear in time.
While the pipes were smokeable, as the war continued on, their use began to dwindle. Rolling papers became very common, as they were more resilient and convenient — after all, it's very difficult to dry pipe tobacco in a war zone, much less a trench knee-deep in mud. Zippos, however, were more utilitarian than pipes, able to be used more diversely, so they've lasted long after the Vietnam era.
Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to buy the trench pipe. It was part of a normal bi-weekly update and was bought within minutes of going on the site — hopefully by someone who has the means to care for historic treasures, who has the appreciation for the life and meaning behind such an object.
As Armistice Day (or Veterans Day, for those of us in the United States) approached, I found myself coming back not just to that pipe, now gone, but to Lieutenant Britt's letter. Even after being wounded, and then contracting measles in the hospital, the soldier was quite cheered by one thing:
"Luckily I have got some tobacco and the orderly got me a pipe. He also gave me this paper and envelope. I am better of the measles now and the wound is getting on alright."