Rod's rare WWI find

Today unusual items from World War I are rare and hard to find writes DAWN RASMUSSEN

Rod McDonald is a collector of First World War items and ephemera and he has worded up his friends to also be on the lookout for anything unusual.

Rod’s interest stems from his Scottish grandfather who served in the Boer War and then in France in WWI in the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). He has great memories of him leading the 1940s Anzac Day parade in Melbourne.

“He was a career soldier, a lieutenant (retired) and was held in high esteem because of his respected military record and the man himself. After WWI he emigrated from Glasgow to Australia with his family,” Rod says.

While the pebbles from Anzac Cove, his grandpa’s war medals, and photos are a treasured part of Rod's collection, it is a briquette which resonates the most.

Collected about 44 years ago in the 1970s, the First World War briquette is stamped 1914 Gott strafe England 1915. It was discovered in a Perth antique shop and repatriated to Bendigo and Rod’s good care.

“Apart from a fine fuel, it was also a German government-driven propaganda tool. The same slogan appeared on buildings in Germany during the First World War,” Rod says.

As a verb, strafe means, “To punish; to do damage to; to attack fiercely; to heap imprecations.” It originates from the German phrase Gott strafe England ("God punish England") a common salutation in Germany in 1914 and the following years.

The image of dedicated Germans gleefully stoking their fires with that message on their briquettes is a powerful one.

In later military usage, it came to mean to attack from low-flying aircraft with bombs or machine-gun fire.

Rod says the briquettes were manufactured in semi-dry brick presses and the German technology was ahead of its time.

The briquette is a dense black and shiny, only about eight inches long by three inches wide and two inches high. 

"The pressing and cutting process produced a compact, easy to handle and clean product.

“In 1919 Australian General John Monash directed officers from the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) to acquire plans and examples of the technology as part of the WWI reparations,” Rod adds.

General Monash was far-sighted.  Victoria had abundant brown coal by comparison, and he knew the technology would be a boon to making it commercially viable.

This led to the technology being adopted by Victoria’s State Electricity Commission and their building of the Yallourn SEC Briquette factory in 1924.

“Brown coal has a far higher moisture content, making it dirty to handle and smelly to burn, but Victoria needed a cheap, reliable fuel source. A brown coal briquette wouldn’t have lasted for 100 years either,” Rod adds.

A trip to Gallipoli and the Western Front last year has been a highlight for Rod and good mate Peter Hall, a former Bendigonian.

“It was an emotional and sobering experience for both of us. 

"We were there a week before Anzac Day. 

"We walked along the beach and took in all the history of the Gallipoli landing, Lone Pine and the trench warfare.

“You can see how and why the idea of Australian mateship started with those innocent young boys at war.”

Looking back over his life, Rod says the Monash name has never been far from many of his life’s experiences.

“In my school days at Bendigo Technical School I was in Monash House, and I worked in the SEC head office in Melbourne for a period and it was named Monash House.

“The biography of his life nearly defeated me though. It was four inches thick and took me years to wade through. He was a pretty clever man all the same.”

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