Written by Victoria Green.
WWI was considered to be the war to end war. Never had there been a conflict so destructive, with so many lives lost. The war encompassed half the world, mobilising military, industrial and human resources like never before and resulting in widespread economic hardship and political change. During WWI, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was reputed to have said sardonically “this war, like the next war, is a war to end war.” He was not wrong to be sceptical. On the 1st September 1939, just 11 years later, Britain was once again at war.
This time, the war was being fought all around the world and Britain had to venture to the Far East to defend their colonies. Initially British troops were occupied in Europe but, in 1941, Japan invaded Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaya. Britain fought the Japanese fiercely in Burma until their supply lines were cut, and they were forced back into India. By 1943, however, the tides were beginning to turn, and the Allies began to push back, recpaturing Mandalay. The Japanese eventually surrendered in 1945, after the longest single campaign ever fought by British Empire troops.
The National Leather Collection has just one relic from the war in the Far East, a Japanese map case. Presented by Major ADH Jones RM Rtd in 1966, the case is in excellent condition, showing little signs of wear. It is hand-stitched, and embroidered with a five-pointed star in yellow thread. This denotes that the owner was of officer rank within the Japanese military. From this we also know that this map case is an earlier example; the later cases were embroidered with a circle instead of a star. The case has three compartments, a shoulder strap and pencil holders on each side. Curiously, it came to the collection complete with a yellow cloth cap, a handwritten note, and some Japanese yen. The craftsmanship of the case itself is testament to the durability of leather, that it should survive the war in such good condition.
This all begs the first question: how did such an item come to be in the hands of a British soldier?
So called ‘trophy-taking’ was a big part of the culture of war, and arguably still is. Soldiers take weapons, personal effects, even body parts from dead soldiers and take them home as a souvenir of their theatre of war. Perhaps to remember, perhaps to impress. This was perhaps best demonstrated in TV series Band of Brothers. Remember Corporal Hoobler who wanted nothing more than to get a luger from a German? Unfortunately, his ill-fated souvenir accidentally cost him his life. Even my great-granfather, with better luck than Hoobler, managed to liberate a pair of binoculars and a pocket watch from a German solider while fighting on the Somme in WWI. (You can read his story here). It seemed fairly commonplace to help yourself to any spare items on the field.
There was a brief, grisly trend of trophy-taking through bodily mutilation, which was prohibited by the US military in 1942. Mutilation was prevalent in the pacific theatres of war, particularly at Guadalcanal where tough fighting conditions and dehumanisation of the enemy in US propaganda may have served to ‘normalise’ such brutal behaviour.
Practically speaking, however, it was useful for soldiers to collect weapons, ammunition, equipment and supplies from fallen comrades and enemies alike. Taking something from a dead enemy was never without risk; what if the thief fell into enemy hands? What if the soldier was booby-trapped? This became a risk that many soldiers were willing to take, however, when starved of supplies and in need of ammunition.
In the incidence of our case, the map contained within would have been of high intelligence value. Maps were marked with enemy lines and positions, sometimes even hinting at the movements of an impending advance. A very important find for an Allied soldier.
Our founder, John Waterer, built the National Leather Collection with objects that have an interesting or unique story attached. We have a treasure trove of over 10,000 curiosities, and it is our job as curators and researchers to tell the world story of our leather items. It is unlikely that we will ever know the full story behind the Japanese map case and its owner, but perhaps that makes it even more compelling.