British Military Memorabilia
British Military Memorabilia is comprised of collectible items from the history of the British armed forces.
Militaria can include items such as edged weapons, firearms, documents and ephemera, flags, uniforms and headgear, medals, buttons and insignia like badges and patches, army camp relics, etc.
Collectors usually focus on one of these particular genres when collecting British militaria, concentrate on a particular era of military history, or one of the three branches of the armed forces: the Royal Navy, the British Army, and the Royal Air Force.
Collectors amass this memorabilia at auctions, antique shows, from militaria dealers, flea markets, in military surplus stores, and via inheritance. A huge number of collectors travel to old battle grounds and army camps, and hunt around for discarded or buried items with metal detectors and excavations etc.
Notable events in British Military history
The military history of Great Britain officially begins in 1707, with the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and expansion of the British Empire.
However, the militaria of Great Britain could be said to include items from the military history of the British Isles prior to this, of military activity in the individual countries of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, stretching back to the medieval period. Any collectibles from this era are artefacts of great historical interest, usually owned by museums.
The English Civil War was a series of political schemes leading to armed conflicts between Parliamentarians and Royalists, also known as Roundheads and Cavaliers, between 1642 and 1651. The court of King Charles I was challenged by supporters of the Long Parliament, which resulted in his execution and the exile of his son Charles II. For a short time the English monarchy was replaced with the Commonwealth of England, and then a Protectorate under the commander of the Parliamentarian force Oliver Cromwell’s personal rule, until Cromwell’s death in 1658. The restoration of the monarchy came about in 1660, after Parliamentary rule failed, and the ascension of Charles II to the throne. However, this decision was only taken with parliamentary consent. It established the course of parliamentary monarchy that resulted in the Kingdom of Great Britain formed in 1707.
Weaponry used during the English Civil War included pikes, matchlock and flintlock muskets, mortars, cannons, and to a lesser extent, the medieval longbow. Armour was steel caps, corselets and tassets, and buffalo hide jerkins.
The Napoleonic Wars ran from 1803-15. They consisted of a series of wars declared against the French Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. These battles revolutionised warfare in Europe, and were on an unprecedented scale due to mass conscription. Napoleon’s armies conquered much of Europe, but were ultimately defeated.
The Napoleonic war between Britain and France ran from 1803-1814. It was the British Army that would play the central role in Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. The Royal Navy were constantly being challenged in their position as the largest navy in the world at this time, yet they retained supremacy in their financing, tactics, organisation, training, hygiene, social cohesion, dockyard facilities, logistical support, and warship design and construction, and this reached its peak during the Napoleonic Wars. Militaria from this era is therefore particularly interesting to Royal Navy collectors.
World War I saw Britain play a major part. The war saw advanced military tactics employed, marking the beginning of modern warfare. Items such as barbed wire made a large difference to slowing the advances of the enemy. Artillery was vastly more deadly, and the introduction of self-powered machine guns to warfare, which had been around for several decades but never employed by the military, made enemy approaches extremely difficult. The advent of offensive weapons such as the tank and combat aircraft, as well as the necessary production of protective defences like the gas masks after the invention of poison gas, has resulted in a plethora of World War I memorabilia for collectors. Much of the fighting also happened at sea, and so militaria includes Royal Navy collectibles. The Royal Air Force of Great Britain was established right at the end of the war, in April 1918.
World War II again starred the armed forces of Great Britain. Technological advancements during the interwar years in weaponry, logistical support, communications and intelligence, medicine and industry, meant that this war was fought very differently to the last. The progression of the Royal Air Force since World War I, as well as advancements in naval technology such as anti-submarine weaponry, meant that most of the action focused on attacks from the air and sea. Weapons used include rifles, submachine guns, machine guns, handguns, grenades, and mortars, as well as aircraft weaponry such as bombs and missiles. Several different models of tanks were employed, as well as other armoured fighting vehicles. Fighter plans includes Supermarine Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes, Hawker Tempests, Bristol Beaufighters and Fairey Foxes. Their fighter pilots were portrayed as modern-day knights and heroes.
Many of the most pivotal events in the war occurred from small rooms miles away from the military action. One area of collectibles particular to World War II are those connected with codebreaking and military intelligence. The development of complex ciphering machines by the Germans, such as the Enigma machine, saw hundreds of British mathematicians employed to crack the codes that would allow British forces to intercept enemy plans. The codebooks, ciphering machines, some of the first computers, and all other connected items, are hugely collectible.
World War II is also notable for its significant effect on the Home Front. Propaganda was widely used, and this ephemera is a popular area of collectibles. Protective items from the Blitz such as gas masks are sought after, as well as items connected with evacuation, the rationing of food, and the mobilisation of women as workers and soldiers.
Types of British Military Memorabilia
Edged weapons have been used throughout British military history. From pike heads used in the English Civil War, to Victorian cutlasses and bayonets, to ornate naval officer’s swords, they are highly prized by collectors of different eras. Edged weapons were used right up until the early 20th century, but went somewhat out of fashion after the vast improvements in technology accompanying the two World Wars.
Muskets used in the civil war often found their way to 17th century Pirates, giving these an extra dimension of historical interest. They are, however, extremely rare, sometimes discovered buried at the bottom of the sea.
The seven-barrelled volley flintlock Nock Gun was one firearm used by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and are very collectible, selling for tens of thousands.
There was vast development of the firearm during and between the World Wars, as technology advanced, such as the first widespread use of machine guns by the British military.
Documents and ephemera
Documents and ephemera are produced as the result of any military conflict. Military maps are of great interest, and photographs are particularly collectible.
Flags are among the most sought-after and expensive of collectibles. Flags carried at particularly noteworthy events attract lots of interest from collectors. From vast naval flags to personal flags, handmade by soldier’s families and carried into battle, these items represent an ideology of the past, everything that fight stood for and was trying to achieve. British Colours were carried to indicate the position of the British units on the battlefield.
Uniforms and Headgear
Uniforms are popular areas of collectibles. A complete uniform is a collecting project, as often only pieces can be found. These can include coats, berets, shoes, helmets, jackets, caps, shirts, trousers, and accoutrements. This area is suffused with replicas, so it often takes some detective work to ascertain if an item is genuine. Some people, rather than collect whole uniforms, focus on one area, for example, badges and patches, belt buckles, or buttons. From 1830, Regular Army infantry that had been wearing silver buttons changed to gilt buttons. Silver were worn by Militia and Volunteer regiments. Other ranks were made of pewter until the introduction of brass in 1855. WWII Army Air Force patches and shoulder insignia are among the most sought-after items of WWII collectibles.
World War medals, often kept by their proud receivers and passed down through families, become increasingly valuable. Connection with particular stories of bravery or notable events in British military history, for example the Dam Busters story, increase their worth. They are a patriotic symbol, and thus bear an extra significance for a large number of collectors.
English Civil War siege money is very collectible. Very rare coins and many oddities were produced during this time, as impromptu coins were struck due to a lack of currency due to a siege. The coins were issued in towns loyal to King Charles I resisting sieges. The first three were created in Carlisle, Scarborough, and Newark during three great sieges. The coins were often used to pay soldiers. After the execution of Charles I, the coin design was altered to read ‘for the son’, Charles II.
Other collectible items
- Gas masks
- World War I water bottles and canteens
- Artillery projectiles such as case shot, canister balls, shells, bullets etc.
- Dog tags
Guide for collectors
Be wary of replicas in this area of collectibles. These may have been produced for innocent purposes like theatre, film, or re-enactments, but are often passed off as the real thing. It is worth buying a good reference work for your particular area of collectibles.
- A ceremonial sword for a member of the Egyptian club, circa 1798, similar to that given to Admiral Lord Nelson, sold for £270,650 at Sotheby’s in October 2002.
- A sword and belt presented to Charles Tyler, Captain of the H.M.S. Tonnant, 1805, sold for £179,200 at Bonhams in July 2005.
- A mere fragment of the Union flag flown from the H.M.S. Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar was sold for £120,000 at Sotheby’s in October 2005.
- Lord Nelson’s purse, bloodstained from battle, sold for £270,650 at Sotheby’s in October 2002.
- 40-Bore second model Nock seven-barrelled flintlock volley gun, circa 1787, sold for £18,000 at Bonhams in December 2009.