Soldiers and Salvage – Doings of “Diggers” WWI

[By ‘A Digger.’]

“Where’s your piece of salvage?” The word salvage conjures thoughts of treasure-trove expeditions in the track of wrecked ships, or the aftermath of destructive commercial fires. To the soldier in France or Belgium it acquired a meaning, less picturesque perhaps, but not without interest. As a result of the war a great work remains for the inhabitants of those countries in restoring their territories to something of their original beauty, and in saving from the ruins of towns, villages, and battlefields war material that is still of value. Many erstwhile towns are now huge salvage dumps. This has been the work of the salvage corps that had their allotted sphere in all modern armies. Every soldier, however, was expected to do his bit in this regard.

The above phrase formed a notice not far from the front line trenches on a quiet front in Flanders. Its purpose was to remind all troops that the case of small arms ammunition, reels of barbed wire, rusting rifles, shells, web equipment, and spare parts generally were of value. A few hundred yards further to the rear was another notice — “Dump salvage here.” At this spot one might find anything from a length of rusty iron to a howitzer shell or a dilapidated German mine thrower. From the dump thus formed the Salvage Corps would attend to the jumble. The material passes through many hands, and finally found a billet at munition centres in France or England. To take this gear across the Channel fishing smacks were utilized. Their return cargo consisted of the “dinkum” articles — shells. I have often seen these craft tacking up and down the busy Thames. One of the diversified tasks of the infantryman was salvaging. Dugouts no longer required were demolished for the sake of the railway and tram rails, timber, and galvanized iron used in their construction. Fatigue parties often had a weary job retrieving the rifles and equipment, so thickly strewn on a sanguine battlefield.

Hazebrouck, France. c. 1917. Two members of the Australian Electrical and Mechanical Mining and Boring Company, AIF, with a yard full of salvaged army items. (Courtesy: Australian War Memorial H12770)

—Where’s Our Wagon?—

“Better salvage another” was often the brief response of many a “hard-hearted” quartermaster to the applicant for a reissue of a lost article of equipment. This frequently caused the disappointed applicant to do as he was bidden. He was not always too particular about where or from whom he salvaged the desired article. Clothing or other useful things carelessly exhibited became fair game for salvage among the troops. If the ————th wanted an extra Lewis gun in a hurry they would not consider the ethics of stealing before abstracting one belonging to an adjacent unit. Battalion transport and artillery drivers were always on the lookout for stray horses or “donks.” A horse picquet was not always a burglar-proof institution. Initiative and impudence went a long way towards success in this respect.

An Australian unit badly wanted a general service wagon. The officer in charge of this unit’s transport saw his chance when the horses attached to a wagon belonging to a British unit were killed on the way up to the forward area. The driver returned for a fresh team, and while he was absent the officer mentioned appropriated the wagon and installed it in new quarters. Next day a bit of camouflage, and the wagon sent on a roving commission for a day, and all enquiries could be met with a brazen face. This was called in the vernacular of the troops “salvage.” Goods in deserted villages automatically became the property of the first troops to find them.

A group of horse drawn Australian general service wagons travelling along an unsurfaced road to obtain supplies from an Army Service Corps dump. WWI. (Courtesy: Australian War Memorial EZ0001)

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—Fruits of a Train Journey—

The “digger” on active service in France developed the salvage habit to a nicety. One did not, however, notice him voluntarily carrying a sheet of galvanized iron to a salvage dump. The more adventitious spirits were past masters at the art. In many instances the army has acted the part of an indulgent parent paying for the depredations of a scapegrace son. Claims officers must have had many a shock through the bills sent in as the result of salvaging on the part of the troops. A long train journey provided infinite scope for this diversion.

Once I travelled from the French coast to the interior of Belgium in a troop train — the usual crowded cattle trucks. Many tedious delays occurred on the way, and on these occasions soldiers left their cramped quarters to stretch their limbs and to see what they could find. At Etaples a truck loaded with bottled wine and spirits was located. The scouting parties were quickly augmented, and a rush ensued to be in before the “death.” Half a dozen bottles of red and white wine between two pals was a fair average. At another halting place numerous tins of condensed milk were collected. Further along toothpaste in tubes was broached. During the second night of the trip a halt was made at St. Pol. From a truck on the next set of rails, and in spite of interruptions from railway officials and military police, a box addressed to an English officer was transferred. What a disappointment when clothing proved the sole contents! The box was subsequently refastened and replaced. The objects of most of the salvaging were food and drink.

Outdoor group portrait of soldiers, possibly of the 6th Battalion, with civilians from a town in France or Belgium. Some of the men are drinking wine. c1918-19. (Courtesy: Australian War Memorial PO8187.002)

—Impromptu Storekeepers.—

An unexpected diversion occurred at Mons the next morning. When the train stopped Belgian railway employees and civilians promenaded both sides of the train. They exchanged “bon jours” with the troops, and occasionally asked for a tin of “bully ‘biff'” The latter was scattered about the floor of each truck. It formed part of the day’s rations just issued. Here and there a tin of “bully” changed hands. One enterprising soldier then conceived the idea of selling it. This proceeding soon became general. Jumble sales began at almost every truck door. Bully beef and the salvaged wine and milk were quickly handed over in return for the small notes of the Belgian currency. Large tips of Anzac wafers (biscuits included in the rations) disappeared. For want of something else to sell, the troops then offered spare shirts and socks. Five francs was considered satisfactory for a tin of wafers or an issue shirt. Stocks ran low, and one digger bemoaned the fact until he unearthed two tins of dubbin. “Dubbin” is a greasy substance used in the army to keep boots watertight. The budding salesman persuaded a civilian that it was tres bon boot polish, and subsequently sold two tins for a franc (about eightpence). Having raised the “wind,” some of the “diggers” proceeded to invest their hard-earned gains in the national game of two-up. Several were soon “broke to the weary wide” once more.

Cooks of the 2nd Battalion preparing bully beef rissoles for the evening meal at Ypres. With the aid of the mincer, the eternal ‘bully’ was turned into a variety of dishes. 11 November 1917. (Courtesy: Australian War Memorial E01064)

Sources:

  1. Soldiers and Salvage (1919, August 18). The Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 – 1929), p. 9. 
  2. Picture 1 – Hazebrouck, France. c. 1917. Two members of the Australian Electrical and Mechanical Mining and Boring Company, AIF, with a yard full of salvaged army items. The Australian War Memorial.
  3. Picture 2 – A group of horse drawn Australian general service wagons travelling along an unsurfaced road to obtain supplies from an Army Service Corps dump. WWI. The Australian War Memorial.
  4. Picture 3 – Outdoor group portrait of soldiers, possibly of the 6th Battalion, with civilians from a town in France or Belgium. Some of the men are drinking wine. c1918-19. The Australian War Memorial.
  5. Picture 4 – Cooks of the 2nd Battalion preparing bully beef rissoles for the evening meal at Ypres. With the aid of the mincer, the eternal ‘bully’ was turned into a variety of dishes.  11 November 1917. The Australian War Memorial.
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