Gallery Glance: “Charmed Soldiers,” National WWI Museum and Memorial

The online exhibit’s display of charms, good luck items and religious statues carried by soldiers include “Pocket statue Infant of Prague” (c. 1914-18), Germany.

According to an old military saying often attributed to war correspondent Ernie Pyle, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Who can doubt that when the prospect of death is nearby, thoughts of survival and mortality close in.

The stark reality for such thoughts is presented in a new virtual exhibit at the National WWI Museum and Memorial. “Charmed Soldiers” features 22 small personal belongings from the museum’s collection, which held out hope for those in the foxholes, in the air and at sea.

Such items “helped many through the dark moments of their service,” according to WWI Museum and Memorial President and CEO Matthew Naylor.

As one would expect, traditional religious items are prominent. But what is fascinating are the number of items best classified as folk magic charms and even a few that had no such connection but came to be personally meaningful to soldiers due to their association with a near-death experience.

As Patricia Cecil, specialist curator for faith and religion and World War I, notes in the exhibit introduction, “War became terrain for supernatural devotion, where objects and prayers shaped how soldiers expressed faith or belief in something — or someone — greater than themselves with cherished objects of faith, hope and luck.”

Among the items on display are crucifixes, rosaries, pocket saints, devotional medals, miniature Bibles and a crucifix reliquary with a piece of “purple silk,” meaningful only to he who carried it.

As one soldier waiting to be sent to France wrote to his mother, thanking her for the cross she sent him, “God will take care of me, mother. I trust in Him with all my heart and soul. May He keep you well and safe and happy and guide me back to you some day. I am not afraid if He sees fit to take me. I am His and He will do with me as He sees fit.”

The collection also includes mass-produced good luck postcards, good luck charms and coins, and even a railroad spike, which one soldier credited with saving his life. But the showstopper for those of us at “a certain age,” are the Rintintin and Nenette Dolls. Originally children’s toys, during the war, people started making them out of yarn and giving them to soldiers — which was required if they were to bring good luck — on the Western Front.

As the war drew to an end, Corporal Lee Duncan of the U.S. Air Service rescued a German shepherd and her newborn puppies. He kept two of the puppies, which he named Nanette and Rin Tin Tin, and in the latter case, the rest is history in popular television and film.

“Charmed Soldiers” is the third online exhibit to be hosted by the WWI Museum in 2023, now attracting viewers from over 200 countries.

Visit the exhibit, made possible through support from the Lilly Endowment, at charmedsoldiers.theworldwar.org.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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