First World War

The original bulletproof vest?

Stephen Palmer’s Oxo tin, 1915

There’s nothing like Oxo

Private Stephen Palmer served with The Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment during the First World War. He and his three brothers had all signed up in 1914 to take part in the fighting in France and Belgium. Sometime in 1915, one of Stephen's brothers sent him this tin of Oxo as a gift.

Soldiers serving on the Western Front received Oxo in their ration kits. They would dissolve the cubes in hot water to make a warming drink. Oxo also featured among luxuries sent from home, along with cigarettes and tea. The tins could even be re-used to keep letters and souvenirs safe from the wet conditions in the trenches.

But Stephen had more reason than most soldiers to be thankful for his Oxo tin. He kept it in his breast pocket. And, miraculously, it ended up stopping a bullet and saving his life. 

‘A bullet hit my breast pocket, went through my tobacco box into the Oxo tin. It tore my coat in twenty places, and I am only bruised.’
Private Stephen Palmer recounting his experience in 'The Dover Express', 1915

The spent bullet and the tin that stopped it, 1915

Stephen kept both the tin and the spent bullet as souvenirs of his lucky escape. He sent them home to Dover, where they were put on display.

Sadly, Stephen's brother George was not so lucky. He was killed in action on the Somme in August 1916.

Stephen's luck also ran out. He died fighting in the Ypres Salient on 16 July 1917. He has no known grave and is commemorated among the missing on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. 

A famous marketing poster from the First World War depicted a soldier writing home to ask his family to: ‘Be sure to send Oxo!’

French and English grammar book belonging to Lieutenant Garnet Joseph Wolseley, 1855

A literary hit

This French-English grammar book, has an inscription stating that it saved the life of Lieutenant Garnet Wolseley during the Crimean War (1854-56).

Wolseley was one of the great figures of the Victorian army and served in many colonial campaigns. He was also closely involved in the contentious issue of the day - army reform - and later rose to become Commander-in-Chief of the British Army.

Wolseley was known for his reckless bravery. He was wounded many times during his long career, including on two occasions during the Crimean conflict. The most serious of these incidents was a shell explosion that killed several of his comrades and left Wolseley with a hole in his head and blind in one eye. 

'I don’t know how long I lay unconscious in that horrible heap of mangled humanity, but out of dim hazy recollections comes one little half-dazed fancy of returning reason. I was certain I was alive, but equally sure that I had lost the top of my skull.'

'I longed to put up a hand to examine my head, but shrank from doing so because of what seemed to me, in my dazed state, the horrible certainty that if I did so my fingers would inevitably dabble in my exposed and protruding brains!'
Memoir of Lieutenant General Sir Garnet Wolseley, 1878

Although we can be certain that this book belonged to Wolseley, his autobiography contains no mention of it saving his life. Perhaps he was involved in too many close shaves to record them all!

Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley, 1910

Front and back of a penny dented by a musket ball during the Battle of Waterloo, 1815

A lucky penny

This penny was found on the battlefield of Waterloo in 1815. It had stopped a musket ball fired during the battle.

The indentation shows that the shot hit the penny at a right angle, bringing the ball to a complete stop. It must have saved its owner’s life. But, considering it was probably found in the pocket of a dead soldier, this lucky streak may not have lasted long!

You can see Private Stephen Palmer's Oxo tin on display in Soldier gallery.

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