First World War carved pipe finds home in Bendigo

Carved pipe tells a historic tale

Tracing your family tree can be an adventure for some, and if you’re lucky enough to start when the grandparents are alive to answer your questions, so much the better.

Les Allen never knew much about Ralph Henry Perkins, his grandfather on his mother’s side, only that he had been at Gallipoli.

It’s only the items left behind that try to tell his story; the medals, photos, ephemera and a pipe.

His grandpa and then his dad would never talk about their own war.

His dad especially turned off the television or radio when programs about it came on.

So what came into Les’s possession that caused such angst? 

As the only grandson of Ralph Henry Perkins, Les inherited his pipe, and has become fascinated with it.

It’s not just any pipe though and it doesn’t seem to have been used to smoke away his troubles too often.

It’s a piece of First World War trench art, and a testament to the travels of the 21st Battalion and the 17th Light Horse Brigade in particular.

It’s not just any pipe though and it doesn’t seem to have been used to smoke away his troubles too often. -

As a private in the Australian Imperial Forces, 19-year-old Ralph held the rank of farrier and his trade or calling was blacksmith.

There may not be much of a calling for these skills today, but 100 or so years ago, they were very important attributes to have on your resume.

His skillful workmanship shines through on the pipe.

Carved with a penknife, the letters and pictures of two kookaburras and the swaying palms at the pyramids are as sharp as the day Ralph first carved them.

It has a silver ferrule with hallmarks and the B&C company stamp on it, and a soft leather pouch that has kept it safe since war’s end.

The pipe intrigues, entices and beguiles you. Is it a 1917 Barling CYG-smoker line made out of ‘Ye olde wood’ as Les has been told, or is it a Bewlay & Co which the sterling silver ferule suggests with its B & Co hallmark.

The places Ralph visited inform the extent of his travels, with the names, dates and countries he passed through ‘written’ on the upper stem and bowl of this pipe.

Les now knows his grandfather visited Ploegsteert, Warnerton, Messines, Estrees, St Quentin, Hamelwood, Albert, Cappy, Armentieres, Moquet Farm, Pozieres, Bapaume 1917, Grand Court, Bullecourt, Longatte, Flers, Gallipoli, Southland and Marseilles between 1915 and 1916.

Les and others have marveled at the design skills behind it, and while it was a work-in-progress throughout the war, how the carver knew it would all finally fit together.

With such a limited workspace, the artist in Ralph must have been challenged each time he worked on it.

Les has looked up the service records of his remarkable grandfather, and has documentation of his three years on active service. 

The only blemish on his war record is early in the peace on April 22, 1916. 

He was cited for ‘neglect of duty in that he neglected to get up when called by Sergeant Beaumont’.

There are also other interesting papers in Ralph’s war record. 

Written up as being 18 years and 11 months, six feet in height and weighing 118 lbs, his Certificate of Medal Examination cleared him of such medical conditions as scrofula, phthisis, impaired constitution, hemorrhoids, inveterate coetaneous disease, traces of corporal punishment or evidence of having been marked with the letters D or BC, or any physical defect calculated to unfit him for the duties of a soldier. 

Once given his smallpox injection, he was declared fit to join D company. 

There’s also a letter from Ralph’s father, William Henry Perkins, of 82 Brougham Street, Bendigo. 

In it he gives his consent for Ralph to join the Australian Imperial Force at Broadmeadows and is dated 2/1/1915.

The discharge ledger card documents what must have been a weary journey home. 

He was discharged from his unit in France, marched out to England on January 20, 1919 and returned to Australia three months later in March. 

The official discharge for statement of service number 1016A, Perkins Ralph Henry, is noted as June 29, 1919. 

With such a start to piecing his family history together, plus the artifacts, medals, and the story-telling pipe, Les will be well-placed when his grandchildren arrive asking for help in putting their family tree together.

Do you have any unusual First World War items? Email dawn.rasmussen@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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