Debris of death helped build a Great War monument to Scottish soldiers
by Evelyn McKechnie
Lead shrapnel which once claimed the lives of millions in WW1 helped raise cash for a monument to Scottish soldiers who served on the Western Front. That memorial was unveiled in 2007 in Belgium and this is the amazing story of one man’s contribution. His name was Ivan Sinnaeve but he was better known throughout the world as ‘Shrapnel Charlie’. He was born in 1953 and sadly passed in 2012 but his legacy lives on in the memories of everyone who met him and all the wonderful models that he made but more especially because a monument to the soldiers of Scotland stands in Flanders Fields.
A few years ago I had the privilege to meet Belgium carpenter Ivan Sinnaeve, who was better known to those who visited the Passchendaele Museum in Zonnebeke, Flanders, as Shrapnel Charlie, a nickname he wore with pride. For ‘Shrapnel Charlie’ made Great War models and scenes from lead shrapnel balls.
He also made the ‘Highland Piper’ for a very special project – The Scottish Monument. The money raised from the sale of this particular model went towards the building of a Celtic Cross monument. It was to be in honour of all those Scots who fought and those who lost their lives on the Western Front, raised halfway between Ypres and Passchendaele. If you stand on the site you can see the spires of the Cloth Hall in Ypres to the south and the spire of the Passchendaele Church to the north.
When I first met Charlie, he was working away in the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 in Zonnebeke. Some figures had just gone on sale and they were sold out in no time at all.
With his Glengarry placed proudly on his head, Ivan worked continually as we talked. He created his own molds for each model. What he did was to recycle death and destruction to something creative and beautiful.
This is his story as told me back in 2007 about how his hobby and passion helped raise money for the Scottish Monument in Flanders. He told me many other stories which were utterly fascinating – including how his family after the Great War, measured out in steps from the powdered remains of the church to where they ‘thought’ their house was. Only when they started digging did they find their valuables hidden in the back yard before they were evacuated. That is how they knew they were ‘home’.
Shrapnel Charlie married his sweetheart Marie Claire and they had two children before his life changed forever after a tragic accident at work in 1991 when he broke his back. He could walk short distances with a stick but was mostly confined to his wheelchair.
Only a few years later after that fateful day Shrapnel Charlie began his unique hobby. In 1995 during a family trip to the Belgian seaside, Shrapnel Charlie noticed lead soldiers in a toy shop.
He told me, “I was intrigued by the display. I bought a mold and some materials that very day but later discovered it was very expensive to keep buying the metals”.
Shrapnel Charlie had a fabulous idea to get around this problem – he had his very own supply of lead – it was all around him in the battlefields of Flanders – shrapnel.
Around 1.5 billion different types of shells were fired during the Great War. Many were duds and are still being churned up all across the Western Front, detonated by the Bomb Disposal Unit of the Belgium Army (DOVO).
Shrapnel balls were packed over 200 balls to a single shell. They would explode high up over a trench, with the nose cone blowing off and the red hot balls spewing out, spitting death down onto the soldiers below.
When they heard of his hobby farmers from all over were converging at his home with thousands upon thousands of shrapnel balls.
Sint-Jan, Ieper, Flanders
Shrapnel Charlie lived in Sint-Jan, a village which is part of Ypres right in the heart of the battlefields in no man’s land. His grandfather born in 1903 told him stories of the Great War and he asked him to never forget what had happened there.
“Sometimes, during my childhood my grandfather took me with him into the trenches and bunkers not far from where we lived and he showed me how the soldiers had to survive. I remember especially the particular story of the Indian soldiers. My grandfather saw those men and they all had beautiful black, black hair. But after 14 days stay in the trenches and the hard weather, the colour of their hair became grey”.
“I could not know that so many years later, unexpected and unplanned, my life would change by means of my unique hobby”.
So Shrapnel Charlie began making models of soldiers and scenes from the Great War so their memory would never fade.
One of his scenes is the famous 1914 Christmas Truce between the Germans and the British which took place not that far from where he lives. Ivan did not sell his models on the internet nor did he make a profit. He only kept a little back for his gas to melt down the lead and for some painting materials.
“My wife can live with my hobby, although it is not always easy for her. The house is a bit “chaotic”, almost every day visitors come to see the making of the lead soldiers, she really has a lot of patience ….I am very happy that my family gives me the possibility to exert my hobby for already more than 10 years and to have again a purpose in my life after my accident”.
When farmers arrived with their buckets of shrapnel balls, Shrapnel Charlie always asked them from where they came. He said, “If I can I try to make Australian soldiers from shrapnel balls that came from Polygon Wood where many Australian soldiers served. Also if shrapnel balls come from St Julian, then I make Canadian soldiers. It just feels right that I try and do it that way”.
“I make about 2000 models a year but for the last two years I have also been making the kilted Highland piper to help get funds for the Celtic Cross”.
The Scottish Monument
Ivan was one of the most humble people I know. He believed in the campaign to raise a monument to the Scots even before anyone else did. He was at the forefront of getting funds going. The first two thousand pounds raised were down solely to the sales of the Highland Piper.
Shrapnel Charlie’s kilted Highland weighs a hefty two and half pounds. Only 250 were made and mold for the kilted highland piper statue was placed inside the base plinth of the Celtic Cross monument. When I bought my own Highland Piper, Ivan gave me number four which I treasure.
Shrapnel Charlie explained, “The Scottish Monument is one that symbolises the blood, sweat and tears of the soldiers and sometimes I have felt the blood, sweat and tears making the kilted highland piper. It is not easy to work the metal from a wheelchair”.
His massive, individual effort helped ensure the unveiling of the Celtic Cross and it will keep the memory alive of all the Scottish soldiers who served in the Great War. The Celtic Cross designed by Dirk Uytterschout, was inspired by many of the village crosses found throughout Scotland. It is made of Scottish granite (Correnie Pink) set on a plinth of original bunker stones and the work was contracted out to the Scottish firm Fyfe Glenrock. The cross is set on a plinth of German bunker blocks.
Inauguration of the Scottish Monument
The monument was unveiled on a glorious sunny day on the 25th August 2007, with Ivan in proud attendance. It was a wonderful day, just part of a weekend of events which included a dawn walk to the monument and a tattoo in the grounds of the Passchendaele Museum at Zonnebeke
The Dawn Walk was very poignant, we all set off in near darkness, following in the footsteps of the Scottish soldiers, coming upon the Scottish Monument that had been unveiled the day before. It was bathed in the soft glowing light of torches around its base. Its a memory that will stay with me forever. The sights, sounds and smells of Flanders in that early dawn and the beautiful Celtic Cross coming up on the horizon.
I look at the Highland Piper every day on my desk and often think of that smiling, wonderful, humble man and his wife Marie Claire. When I visit the Scottish Monument I have a special thought for Ivan. He touched the lives of many. I was so glad I met him and that he shared his stories with me and many others. Sadly, Ivan passed in March 2012, gone far too soon. For me he will always be ‘an honorary Jock’.
When death’s dark stream I ferry o’er,
A time that surely shall come;
In Heaven itself, I’ll ask no more,
Than just a Highland welcome.
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