The puzzle of the battle and the brewery


Cigarette lighters fashioned from rifle shells are among the most common forms of trench art. 

First World War examples such as this one turn up relatively often, as indeed do examples made during later conflicts. The basic design varies little. The big difference with this one is the engraving (strictly speaking, I think, die-stamped lettering). The shell is marked along one side Actually used at Mons  and then along the other – rather incongruously – Berry’s Ales & Stouts, Sheffield.

The battle at Mons, on the Franco-Belgian border, took place during the earliest weeks of the Great War in 1914. It was the first major engagement between the British Expeditionary Force, as the regular soldiers first despatched to the Western Front were called, and the advancing German army. The British and their French allies were forced to retreat but not before considerably slowing the progress of the invading German forces. The battle, at which 1600 British soldiers were killed or wounded,  was regarded as a tactical victory but a strategic defeat for the British Army.

One must, I think, take the wording on the lighter at face value – that this bullet was fired during the Battle of Mons and retrieved from the battlefield.  The question then is, why is it also engraved with the name of a small Sheffield brewery that seems to have gone out of business (as far as I can make out) not long after the First World War ended?

Did the returning soldier who had made the lighter have it engraved with the name of his favourite brewer on his safe return home? Or was the soldier maybe a brewery employee – perhaps he used a stamping press at work to do the lettering on the lighter? Was it a one-off acquired by the brewery and engraved to be used as a prize of some kind? Or did the brewery somehow get hold of a batch of such shells and have them made into lighters as a canny combination of tribute and local advertising? If the latter, then there may be other examples out there.  If any of the former, then this example will be unique.

Whatever the explanation, this is an intriguing little item.   Connecting the two sides of it (literally) is quite a puzzle.  It’s touching in a way that something so emotionally charged as a bullet fired in the opening battle of the Great War has been given a connection with something so prosaic as a local brewery.  Local beer is very much a manifestation of home and comfort – something that must have seemed a very very long way away for those young soldiers at Mons.

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