Flimsies: The Re-used Water Cans of the First World War

The First World War might not be the first thing that leaps to mind when thinking about efficient re-purposing of materials; the Iron Harvest in France is evidence enough of that. However, often all sorts of items and containers were scavenged for re-use on the Front.

One of the enduring symbols found in trench memoirs is the petrol can, used for carrying water after it was emptied of gas. War memoirists from Robert Graves to Edwin Campion Vaughn, and even Canada’s Victor Wheeler, write of the particular taste of fuel in the water brought to the front lines in gas cans, and how one of the only ways to disguise it was to make extremely strong tea. Most of the time, even this didn’t work.

Image above: [gas can] The Shell Motor Company, [no date]. Collections CCGW/CCGG.

Finding water at the Front was a difficult task; most of the ground water was muddy and in places like Passchendaele and the Somme, where it collected in corpse-filled shell holes, it was also polluted. Many times, particularly after a difficult advance, soldiers in the lines had no water, as they were not allowed to carry large amounts of water with them under fire.

Ideally, water, like food, was supposed to be brought up from the support lines using a series of runners, but often, the heavy shell fire the runners faced resulted in the cans being dropped along the way, as their bearers leapt from crater to crater in an effort to protect themselves. When there was no water, men in desperation sometimes drank the stagnant water in shell holes, but as many memoirists later attested, it was an experience only done once.

The can in the photograph is from the Shell Motor Company. Both have their original spigot cover, marked with the name of the company and still have the remains of their original paint. Most of the time, cans like these would have been left on the field, though they were supposed to be taken back to the support lines and refilled. They get their name from their relative fragility in comparison to the more durable Jerry Can.

*With thanks to Andrew Gregory, curator of the CAF Logistics Museum, for the idea for this post.

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