The story told by WWI soldier’s mess tins

Artifacts at Pioneer Home Museum in Virden

One of the most fascinating parts of museum work is how seemingly innocuous artifacts can offer an insight into past events. This process is exemplified by the items we are examining today.

The artifacts in questions are a pair of small, stamped metal, mess tin dishes. The design of the dishes is simple. Pressed out of metal with rolled edges, one featuring a simple handle riveted on, they are extremely plain in design.

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The material itself is scuffed, dented, and pockmarked with age and showing a faint patina of corrosion. The tins themselves have few distinguishing features to set them apart from the millions of their fellows produced throughout the 20th century.

History engraved

What is interesting about these mess tins is what was engraved upon them by their original owner, Private J. Pattinson of the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles.

On the larger mess tin, Private Pattinson not only engraved his name, but the name of his unit and a detailed facsimile of his regiment’s cap badge.

On the second tin is a series of inscriptions detailing a number of battles Private Pattinson participated in along with the dates of those battles.

Vimy on a mess tin

They include some of the most famous battles in Canadian military history, Vimy Ridge 9-24-1917, Amiens 8-8-1918, Arras 26-8-1918, Cambrais 9-9-1918 and Mons 11-11-1918.

The battle of Vimy Ridge has long been enshrined in Canadian historiography as a pivotal moment in Canadian history, often cited as “the birth of the nation of Canada.” Though there are those who disagree with this somewhat simplified view, it was doubtlessly an important moment in the development of the Canadian national identity.

Amiens, Arras and Cambrais were part of the so-called Hundred Days offensive which broke through the German front lines and ushered in the end of the First World War.

The final battle listed, Mons, is particularly fascinating as it represented both the first and final battles of the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War. In August 1914, the British expeditionary force fought a heroic rear guard action at Mons. Four years later, in November 1918, the Entente forces recaptured this ground.

Silent witnesses

Private Pattinson and his mess tins were witness to some of the most pivotal moments of the First World War and it’s only because he took the time to engrave a record of his service on them that we know of his experiences.

Instead of being innocuous pieces of military kit, Private Pattinson's mess kit offers an incredibly fascinating insight into the last days of the First World War.

Brett Bambridge is summer curator of Virden Pioneer Home Museum.

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