Relics of Remembrance

Two major events are occurring at the moment in my life… my parents recently returned from a three-week trip to the UK; and since Remembrance Day is coming up, it is Veterans’ Week here in Canada. Are these events unrelated? They certainly seem to be, but actually their simultaneous occurrence could not have been more fortunate.

My parents brought back some souvenirs for me, and I am so glad they know me so well and that their trip was so close to Remembrance Day. No I Love London t-shirts or tacky keychains here… instead, they brought me back some fantastic military artifacts and Poppy Appeal products just in time for this special week of remembrance.

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On my trips to the UK, I’ve commonly seen these simple wooden crosses laid against war memorials and memorial plaques. My remembrance cross, in honour of my great-great uncle William Edward Jones killed at the Somme, stands here in my mum’s living room garden

Unlike in Canada where the only products commonly sold are lapel poppies, the UK’s Poppy Appeal offers a wide range of products. One of the most unique is a large plastic poppy for affixing to a car grille. My brother and I each got one of these poppies; and since we are both dedicated petrolheads with a great love for our cars, there could be no better way to show our respect than with our automobiles.

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These car poppies really stand out and are very beautiful.

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I think it’s very fitting that my car, an ex-police vehicle used to serve and protect, is now showing respect for those who sacrificed in that same mission of service and protection.

I think it’s very important to buy and wear a poppy every year. It’s a simple display of respect which is easily overlooked, but the purchase of poppies funds help for the people who have selflessly helped us, often to their own detriment. And the wearing of poppies demonstrates not only to veterans and serving members, but also to ourselves and our peers that we recognise the contributions made- even in vain- to the security and peace of this country and the world at large. Poppies don’t condone war; they simply acknowledge the sacrifices made by people in terrible circumstances as they attempt to make the world a better place.

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This year I am wearing a Canadian poppy at work, and a British poppy (seen here) in all other situations.

My parents aren’t the only ones who know how much I appreciate military stuff. My church’s former vicar is well aware of my interests, and he recently gave me a bunch of deactivated WWII-era ammunition! There are some .30 cal rounds, two .50 cal rounds, some smaller pistol rounds, and one 20 mm round. 20 mm rounds are often used in aircraft cannons, so this is quite a magnificent artifact to have!

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The weight of these bullets, although their entrails have been removed, is quite something

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My parents also brought back these Royal Marines badges from the UK. My collection grows!

With Remembrance Day quickly approaching, there is certainly a lot that reminds me to remember. These souvenirs from the UK are some of the most special I’ve got, and the timing could not have been better. I am remembering this Veterans’ Week, and I hope that this post inspires you to as well.

Memorials for Today

I often hope that whatever I create, whether novels, poetry, or blog posts, will live on as a memorial to the past. Memorials stand all over the world in bricks, metal, and stone; but I know that memorials can exist in the written world as well. Remembering the sacrifices of the past is of utmost importance to me, and I hope that I am doing my part to see it through.

For awhile now I’ve been wanting to publish a post focused on the status of war memorials today. For many of us, war memorials are simply a block of stone in the centre of town that we drive past every day; and gather round every May 9 or November 11 when it is time to remember. But upon examination, war memorials are much much more. The multitude of names inscribed upon them represent hundreds of thousands of hours of courage and sacrifice; hours dedicated to the owners’ fellow man. War memorials commemorate the darkest hours of history; hours which many people feared would never come to a happy end. As you will see in this post, war memorials are infinitely more than monuments we only notice once a year. They represent entire lives given in sacrifice, and they live just as much today as those men and women lived for us so many years ago.

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Here, civilians march past the “Motherland Calls” statue on Mamyev Kurgan, site of some of the fiercest fighting during the Battle of Stalingrad. Copyright Sputnik/Kirill Braga  https://sputniknews.com/photo/20160509/1039314582/russia-victory-day-celebrations.html

Some of the nicest moments of remembrance are spontaneous ones. It’s great to have the dedicated day of November 11 where the world makes a concerted effort to pause and remember, but unplanned moments are wonderful too. Throughout my travels in Canada, America, and Great Britain I’ve come across many memorials that weren’t on my radar; and those memorials are usually the ones which have the greatest effect on me.

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Huge thanks are in order to Michael from Forties Photos for offering me this and the following two photos! While visiting the (Canadian-run) Juno Beach Centre in Normandy recently, he noticed some maple-leaf clad cyclists passing by and convinced them to pose for a picture with the Canadian memorial sculpture. What a photo op!

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I love the surreal yet evocative feel of this sculpture.

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The Canadian memorials at Juno Beach appear to be well-remembered, even today.

I expect that there are similar traditions in other countries as well, but at the Remembrance Day service in Canada’s capital of Ottawa, the custom is to place one’s poppy on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the service. Although it happens every year, it’s still a very beautiful sight to see the grey and sombre tomb slowly become covered by a blanket of red poppies.

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We don’t know his name, but we remember him nonetheless. Fred Chartrand/ The Canadian Press http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/in-photos-canadians-honour-fallen-soldiers-on-remembrance-day/article5173239/

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Ottawa’s remembrance service is always broadcast nationwide on TV, and it’s always exceptionally well-attended in person too. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Mikkel Paulson. Public domain.

I am personally quite transfixed by the Soviet Union’s part in World War II; and consequently in Russia’s continued remembrance of it. Russia is a deeply patriotic nation, and her citizens both young and old are eager to remember and demonstrate their remembrance. On May 9 (Victory Day), young people hand out flowers to veterans and everyone turns out in patriotic garb to commemorate the event. One of my favourite examples was one I discovered while doing a high-school project on wedding traditions around the world. I read that many Russian brides lay their wedding bouquets on a war memorial after their wedding ceremony. This is akin, of course, to the Queen Mother’s gesture in Westminster Abbey back in 1923; but what I love about the Russian tradition is that it is embraced by the masses. Masses of Soviet citizens fought to the death from 1941 to 1945, and it is beautiful that newly married couples of new generations recognise the sacrifice that afforded their futures.

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Here in Stavropol, two young Russians light memorial candles for the 70th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. Reuters via http://www.telegraph.co.uk 

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Even inside the Arctic Circle, this Memorial for the Defenders of the Soviet Arctic has been laid with flowers and wreaths. This region is nearly forgotten by civilisation; yet its memorials are remembered. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Vincent van Zeijst. CC-BY-SA 3.0

I wanted to close with one of my favourite photos ever. It can’t exactly be substantiated, and so often Internet finds are not what they profess to be, but regardless this photo makes me emotional. It makes me wonder what surviving veterans must really feel when they look at memorials today. So many years have passed, but I doubt that their memories ever will.

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Countless Russian towns and villages employ WWII tanks as gate guardians; reminders of the battle that was waged 70 years ago. And still- note the flowers atop this T-34- they are remembered. Image from englishrussia.com

 

 

Highgate’s Heroes: Pt. 2

In today’s post I am revisiting London’s famous Highgate Cemetery; well-known around the world for its overgrown graves and rather eerie Gothic allure. Less famous, however, are Highgate’s numerous war graves, and it is these graves that I put my attention to. Highgate has a surprising 316 graves registered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Although I tried, I was certainly unable to locate them all; so until I can return to Highgate and continue my photographic quest, I hope the photos in this post and Pt. 1 are a good start.

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Lieutenant T.A. Prior of the London Rifle Brigade, died 1921

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Gunner O. Bowyer of the Royal Field Artillery, died 1918

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Sergeant C.T.L. Clement of the Royal Air Force, died 1944

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Private S. Kemp of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, died 1918

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Corporal H.A. Taylor of the Canadian Infantry, died 1919

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Private P.S. Jackson of King Edward’s Horse, died 1917; and his brother, Ronald Singleton Jackson, died 1918

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Corporal Walter Percy Scott of the Royal Air Force, died 1920

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Aircraftman 2nd Class F.E. Sorgatz of the Royal Air Force, died 1944

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Cadet R.E.D. Bedford of the Officers Training Corps, died 1916

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Sergeant W.J. Parry of the Machine Gun Corps, died 1919

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Lance-bombardier R.M. Jones of the Royal Artillery, died 1943

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Private Manley Frederic Ashwin of the Artist’s Rifles, died 1918

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Sergeant H.T.A. Walters of the Royal Air Force, died 1943

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Lieutenant-Colonel C.E. Earle of the Cheshire Regiment, died 1917

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Lieutenant B. Conan-Davies of the York and Lancaster Regiment, died 1918

Highgate feels like a forgotten place– it’s so quiet and isolated under the leafy boughs and strains of ivy that have taken over the cemetery. But perhaps that silence and isolation symbolises the rest that the soldiers buried here deserve, after their courageous service and the violent, horrific experiences they surely had. And I hope that these posts have helped to ensure that they are remembered.

Highgate’s Heroes: Pt. 1

There must be thousands and thousands of cemeteries across the world; but the most famous one is probably Highgate Cemetery in London. A Victorian creation, Highgate is a burial ground very different from any other. When I think of a cemetery, I think of ordered crosses in row upon row; or carved headstones laid out on a manicured lawn. Highgate’s aesthetic is completely different, because it is (on the east side at least) essentially a cemetery built in a wood.

I would highly recommend visiting Highgate when in London. It was a very different and restful experience for me– nice to get out of the city’s hustle and bustle and instead take awhile in this cemetery full of London citizens to reflect on life and history. My mum and I visited the cemetery just to see the unearthly wildness of it, but my visit became focused on something altogether different. After only a few moments inside the grounds, I spied the first war grave.

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Commonwealth war graves are usually marked by a simple headstone of Portland stone. These headstones have an especially resolute look to them in the untamed environs of Highgate.

I hadn’t even expected there to be war graves at Highgate– I guess I thought that war graves are more of a military base or overseas thing. However, I immediately resolved to try to find all that exist at Highgate. Highgate has a very forgotten feel to it, being all overgrown and shaded– and war graves are one thing that I believe must never be forgotten.

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Bombardier S.A. Ball of the Royal Field Artillery, died 1918

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Lieutenant A.H. Boney of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, died 1919

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Sergeant R.C. Custance of the Royal Air Force, died 1943

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Sergeant R.O. Ford of the Australian Field Artillery, died 1919

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Private F.E.B. Buck of the Australian Infantry, died 1919

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Sergeant Major G.A. Mote, DCM of the Canadian Infantry, died 1917

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Lieutenant A.C.M. Gordon of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, died 1917

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Private D.T. Cross of the Hampshire Regiment, died 1919

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Battery Sergeant Major F. Hill-Jones of the Royal Field Artillery, died 1916

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Second Lieutenant D.H. Weedon of the Northumberland Fusiliers, died 1917

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Volunteer F.F. Burgoyne of the Home Guard, died 1940

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Sergeant R.L. Aiken of the Royal Air Force, died 1941

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I appreciated the Biblical epitaph on this headstone, sourced from John 15:13. True of all the brave men interred at Highgate, they laid down their lives that we might live.

125 Years of the Mosin

There are few tools which have been used continually for over a century– industrial technology moves fast, and the old ways of doing things are often eclipsed by newer, more effective means. Working as I do at Mitsubishi, I laugh to think of our shop attempting to function without the help of the pneumatic tools which only came into widespread use around seventy years ago. As it is, any enduring technology is unique; and to be commended.

Russia’s Mosin rifle is one such tool, which is so simple and sturdy in design and use that it has endured for not only a century, but exactly 125 years! Designed in 1891 by a Captain Sergei Mosin, the Mosin has truly stood the test of time; and it has done so not because its design was particularly advanced or revolutionary, but simply because it works. I personally love things like that– whether it’s a car, or in this case a gun– which are unassuming but which have great character and dependability. The official Soviet military manual for the Mosin states that “the rifle is simple in construction and design, sturdy and faultless in use; it is always ready for immediate employment.” While it may be reasonably supposed that this is a propaganda-driven statement, the truth is hardly any less impressive.

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Meet the Mosin M91/30 (the lower rifle): I believe this is one of the most beautiful and prolific rifles ever made.

Few rifles have seen as many variants and upgrades as the Mosin has; which is a further testament to its versatility. What began as the Mosin M91 morphed into a dragunskaya rifle for use by mounted infantry, and later still came the 91/30 and 91/59 variants. The 91/30 rifle was used throughout the 1941-45 conflict on the Eastern Front, and remains the most famous and widely-used incarnation of the Mosin. Modifications were even made to the 91/30 itself when they were needed– this versatile rifle gave rise to the 1944 carbine; and when fitted with a scope and downturned bolt handle, it was distributed to snipers throughout the Red Army. Over the years, countries other than Russia and the Soviet Union have also manufactured the Mosin. Finland’s wartime examples are of particular interest to collectors and history buffs, while postwar examples from places like former Yugoslavia and China are also in existence.

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A look at all the Mosin variants over the years; beginning with the M91 at the top and the sniper M91/30 in the middle. Image from Antique Military Rifles via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 2.0

I must admit that the Mosin is primarily utilitarian, and not much about it is elegant. Certainly, pre-World War II examples displayed a level of craftsmanship; but wartime production resulted in crude and rough finishes. This, however was not totally out of keeping with the character of the rifle; nor did it affect the Mosin’s effectiveness in the field! Of course, striking firearms like the AK-47 or Steyr AUG are pretty cool– but the Mosin did its job without any of that show. Each one of the Mosin’s spartan features is there for a reason, and these features combine to make a very solid firearm.

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Simple and unsophisticated it may be, but the Mosin fulfilled a great need during WWII and it has proved to be something of a timeless design

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Visible in this close-up is the 5-round box magazine forward of the trigger, which is accessed by a hinge at the bottom or through the chamber at the top. A Mosin can be loaded using charger clips of ammunition, or simply with one round at a time.

The Mosin proved its worth during the fierce combat on the Eastern Front of World War II. Although its design was already fifty years old by then and the nature of combat had begun to change by WWII, the need still existed for an inexpensive, easily-manufactured, reliable bolt action rifle with which to equip infantrymen. The unpredictable conditions and ferocious fighting on the Eastern Front meant that reliability was especially important. And the Mosin delivered– although it was big, heavy, and had a low rate of fire, it was dependable. It functioned even in the mud of autumn and the snow of winter, and was simple enough that even the most poorly-trained Red Army recruit could master it. The Mosin would never have the firepower of its semi-automatic cousins the SVT-40 and SKS, but for what it was it was wonderful. Many German soldiers admitted that they happily cast aside their standard-issue Karabiner 98K rifles in favour of a captured Mosin.

One of the Mosin’s greatest achievements was its wartime success as a sniper rifle. The power behind its 7.62 x 54R cartridge and its reasonable accuracy meant that it was deadly in the right hands. Famous snipers like Vasily Zaitsev and Lyudmila Pavlichenko scored hundreds of kills during the war, all while equipped with a Mosin. Even Finland’s most famous sniper, Simo Häyhä, used a Mosin (without a scope at that!) to great effect.

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Two female partisans, equipped with the M91/30 sniper rifle. Image from http://www.wumag.kiev.ua/index2.php?param=pgs20052/66 via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

For me personally, the Mosin 91/30 stands as one of Russia’s greatest products and one of the greatest rifles in the world. Sure, it’s not trendy or spectacular, but around 37,000,000 of these rifles were manufactured– the production numbers and combat records speak for themselves. I’ve been very fortunate in that I have experience with a Mosin; so perhaps I’m biased! But it’s an honest bias; towards a gun which has played a large role in the recent history of the world and which has a unique character and history.

I’m not sure what Red Army soldiers thought of their Mosins– firsthand accounts have proved hard to come by– so I’ll describe my own impressions instead. First of all, it takes some practice to wield a Mosin adeptly! Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m 5’4” and the Mosin is only about a foot shorter! And it does get heavy after awhile. It would be difficult indeed to be in charge of such a large and heavy gun in the midst of combat. As for ergonomics, I don’t think the concept existed when Captain Mosin designed his gun. It takes getting used to, but the stock is a reasonable length even for me and the trigger is just within reach. Although awkward and cumbersome at first, the Mosin has become second nature to me and I am as comfortable handling it as I am any modern-day rifle!

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A top view of the Mosin’s bolt. The bolt can be very difficult to unlock and is also susceptible to freezing, but it usually works in after awhile.

Now for the exciting part: firing the Mosin! This isn’t exactly a gun for beginners– it will hurt you if you’re not careful. It has a considerable amount of recoil, which mirrors the enormous boom each shot makes. Firing the Mosin always leaves me in awe. The power it has is amazing, and it’s a really fun rifle. Part of the fun is the challenge of shooting accurately from an unscoped rifle, especially when you know such huge recoil is imminent. It was through firing the Mosin that I realised how much shooting requires the mind. It’s not just about pointing the gun and pulling the trigger; one’s mind has to be in the right place as well. The true appeal of the Mosin for me is that it’s not only a fantastic and powerful gun, but it’s also a piece of history… a piece which is still relevant and enjoyable today.

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Chips and scrapes are evident in the wood of this lovely Mosin, manufactured at the Izhevsk Arsenal in 1938. It has been well used, but is in excellent working condition.

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This photo clearly shows the mark of the Izhevsk Arsenal, the hammer and sickle crest, the year of manufacture, and the rifle’s serial number: LI3137.

Nowadays, even after 125 years, Mosins are still in use by a select few countries such as Bulgaria and the Ukraine. They also keep cropping up in regional conflicts and guerrilla warfare around the world. Civilian shooters and hunters have also come to appreciate their versatility and affordability as sporting firearms. Ammo is relatively inexpensive considering the 7.62 x 54R round is similar to the Springfield .308, and the guns themselves are cheap as well. With a Mosin, one can get a lot of gun for around $200! If you ask me, the Mosin is a legend. Who can argue with the proof of 125 years? It might look like any other 20th century bolt action rifle, but I think it’s a thing of beauty. It’s not as exciting as modern firearms, but no one should say a bad word against it until they’ve fired it and experienced that Mosin power! And guns like the Tommy gun or AK-47 certainly have a more prominent reputation in the media, but it was the Mosin that equipped the bulk of the Red Army in WWII. With a lesser gun in their hands, their victory might not have been so sure. The Mosin has been around for 125 years, and I’m grateful that in my lifetime I’ve come to know it. I appreciate the Mosin immensely, and as long as I’m here its amazing legacy will be remembered!

 

A Vintage Weekend

Although I’m not an outgoing person and have, for this as well as other reasons, chosen to pursue the lonely craft of writing, I really enjoy going out and doing things. By “things” I mean attending car shows, farmers’ markets, antique shops, or even just going for a drive on a pleasant day. Whenever I go out, interesting things tend to show up; and I’m always fascinated by new and unusual things.

A few weeks ago, my mum and I went to an antiques market in nearby Orillia– markets like these seem few and far between in the area. Given that, I wasn’t expecting anything huge or sophisticated; I was just excited to attend a celebration of everything antique and vintage! But the market was a surprise, it was far more varied and extensive than I expected.

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Some of the first antique stalls, selling everything from midcentury furniture to 19th century hat pins

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There were dozens of stalls, but as my mum and I arrived fairly early in the day, we didn’t have to compete with too many other customers!

My experience at the market was wonderful– everything was so lively and exciting! Antiques offer a glimpse into the past, and thanks to technological advancements and changes in lifestyle over the years, one is bound to find things that just aren’t seen anymore. Those things, like pretty floral chamberpots or antique washboards, are fascinating; but of course all I really look for is anything pertaining to Russia, the Soviet Union, or the military. I never thought that an Ontario antiques market would be a hotspot for such things, but I was very wrong.

I came away from the market with empty pockets, but a handbag full of no less than three Soviet military hats plus about two dozen Soviet pins! I got a great deal for them, and now I have a fabulous collection of pins which I am looking forward to adding to in the future.

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All of these pins came with the hats I bought

The pins are so cool, and I’m slowly trying to research what they all signify. My humble knowledge of Russian has come in handy with that! I do have some favourites, however…

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The BT-7 pin at top left is one of my favourites, and it pays homage to a tank that featured heavily in the Spanish Civil War and Great Patriotic War.

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I got several Victory Day pins, such as this one at the top right, which was created for the 30-year anniversary of the end of the war in Europe in 1945

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My very favourite pin is the gold one at the top, due to its unusual design and the beautiful badge in the centre which reads “USSR” and below, “Victory”

Now onto the hats. I chose one peaked cap with a camouflaged emblem out of a collection of eight or nine brighter versions, because although the others with their red piping and embellished emblems were more attractive, this one could be worn safely anywhere due to its dull colours.

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Usually I only see hats like this in museums, but now I have one of my own!

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According to the label inside, my peaked cap is from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg)

The second hat I got was a real pilotka. It’s like the sidecap utilized by countless militaries across the world, and for me the simple green pilotka is a symbol of the average Russian soldier during the Great Patriotic War. Vainly, I’m quite pleased with my pilotka since one of my novel’s central characters always sports one!

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This is such a beautiful piece of headgear, with the red piping and bold emblem on the front

Last, I got a hat which the seller believed to be from Poland or Eastern Europe, instead of specifically Russia. Nonetheless, it came with the distinctive Russian coat of arms on the front and Russian badges on the side. It’s a very functional hat as the flaps on the top fold down over the wearer’s ears; and it looks very familiar to me. I may have seen it in a book somewhere!

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The camouflage pattern and style of the hat makes me think it may be from around the ’60s or ’70s

When I go to antique shops and markets, I’m always excited to see vintage rhinestone jewellery and the like– but in the back of my mind, I’m just waiting to find something military. Usually it happens, but it’s still always a surprise, and I’m so grateful to have found so many treasures so close to home!

Memorials of London: Part Two

Today I’ll share with you all the war memorials I saw on the second half of my recent trip to London- I hope you enjoyed the first half of this series, because this is more of the same yet different at the same time! One of my favourite areas of London is Kensington, but I’m ashamed to say that I never even noticed the first memorial in this post before. Located in front of St. Mary Abbots church at the corner of Kensington High and Kensington Church streets, there’s a dignified and beautiful stone memorial. It seems to have been initially built in honour of the men of Kensington killed in World War I; but as we now know, WWI was not the war to end all wars, and mention of World War II was added to the memorial later.

 

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This memorial seemed to have an aura of tranquility about it, even amidst the chaos of the high street

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As with nearly all the memorials I saw in London, this one still had a number of wreaths laid on it. As it should!

Another very compelling memorial (of sorts) was found on the HMS Belfast– in her sailing days, the Belfast was part of the Arctic convoys which kept the Soviet Union well-supplied during the war. These convoy routes were fraught with U-boats, fog, ice, and general danger; and they were important to the Soviet war effort. However, there seems to be a sad lack of recognition for both the military and merchant participation in these convoys. That lack fortunately doesn’t extend to the Belfast though, and there was a nice bilingual plaque onboard commemorating a project which was dedicated to the memory of all those who contributed to the Arctic convoys.

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The HMS Belfast is a fitting last witness to this “heroic struggle”

Later on, upon crossing the Millennium Bridge, I saw another memorial which remembered another oft-forgotten side of the war. It was a memorial to the firefighters who died in the line of duty as they fought to contain the fiery aftermath of German bombing raids.

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Tucked in beside a building and nearly in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral, this memorial could be easy to miss– but I’m glad I noticed it!

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I’d never even thought of the contributions made by firefighters during the Blitz, but they were certainly essential

Taking the bus in London is always a good idea– it might not be quicker than the Tube, but it’s a lot less crowded (usually); plus one gets to actually see things other than one’s fellow travellers. And taking the bus down Whitehall turned out to be a very wise choice for me, since I passed the Monument to the Women of World War II. I had no idea this memorial existed; but it resonated with me since if I had lived in wartime England, I would have had one of the jobs represented on the monument.

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This is a relatively new memorial, only unveiled in 2005. I’m glad that the undeniable contribution of women in WWII has been recognized!

The final memorial I saw was also previously unknown to me, and it was hardly a unique or showy one. But it was everything I think a war memorial should be: dignified, understated, and proud. It was a simple stone cross in the middle of Sloane Square, and it truly seemed to anchor the square and all the surroundings. That’s a very moving metaphor to me, since war memorials honour the sacrifices upon which our free and prosperous societies are built.

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Sometimes the simplest memorials are the most beautiful. This one reminds me of the unadorned crosses which mark the graves of so many thousands in war cemeteries across the world.