There are about 30,000 war memorials to the Fallen of the Great War in the United Kingdom. They range from the grand occasion ceremonial column such as The Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, to those on village greens, public buildings and railway platforms such as at Victoria Station, London. A drive through France will also reveal a war memorial in almost every village and the grand set pieces of the Allied and German war cemeteries. However, there is a kind of war memorial that is unique to the Germans. This is the Nagelfiguren = Figure of nails. These figures originated in Germany several of hundreds of years ago and then consisted of simple iron nails hammered into trees as a means of communication by itinerant artisans - particularly blacksmiths. Rather in the way that tramps used to leave signs in the British countryside to inform their fellow-travellers that they had passed by and were well. As a hand-made nail was quite a valuable item in those days, its use in this way showed a strong commitment to the brotherhood and indicated that the donor was doing well: he could afford to make a display using the costly hand made nails.
The figure of nails
The Great War Nagelfiguren was an object made of wood shaped in the form of an animal, cross, military weapon, shield and many other objects. Hand-made nails were hammered into the softwood to give it a metalled surface. The nails were made of iron, silver and even gold. Particularly in the war years of 1915-17, Nagelfiguren were created in many towns and cities in Germany by local and national institutions that sponsored them as part of the war effort. Each nail would be purchased by an individual and hammered into the wood as an expression of national solidarity. The completed object would be exhibited in public places as part of exhibitions and demonstrations supporting the war. The money raised by the sale of the nails was donated to the German Red Cross and other war related causes such as war-widows, orphaned children and disabled servicemen.
The interpretation of the Nagelfiguren
During the Great War the sale of nails, and their incorporation into the various wooden figures, was considered as a means of involving the citizenry in the playing of their part in the pursuance of the aims of the war. They reflected the wish of the general public to be seen to be personally assisting in the combatting of the enemies of Germany. The Nagelfiguren were usually placed in public place to engender a sense of wide solidarity and joint sacrifice. After 1915 they became an important element of the propaganda exhibitions that were staged by the Government, with full military participation, in every large conurbation throughout Germany. They were an expression of the confidence the German people had in the military leaders and the armed forces in the prosecution of the war. When, in 1917, that confidence began to fail, the interest in the Nagelfiguren also waned in the civic demonstrations, but personal interest and enthusiasm continued even after the end of the Great War. Hindenburg. It was planned that each donor be charged five Marks for an iron nail, ten for a silver nail and whatever price they chose to pay for a gold nail. An alternative scheme was to give each donor a photograph of the statue and a "Denkspruch"" (aphorism) in the writing of the Field-Marshal.
The form of the Nagelfiguren
As mentioned earlier the Nagelfiguren took many forms, the most common of which were: the Imperial German eagle; the Christian cross; the U-boat; the armorial shield and influential human figures. The first of the civic sponsored Nagelfiguren of the Great War was put on public display in Darmstadt in April 1915. The largest ever was a 12 metre wooden statue of the then hero of the hour, General Paul von Beckendorff und von Hindenburg. It was unveiled in Berlin in September 1915 and was surrounded with storied scaffolding that permitted access to all the surfaces of the statue so the paid for nails could be hammered in. Students and young men deliberately chose hard to reach locations so their nail stood out in isolation and admiration. It is claimed that although the Hindenburg figure was never completely covered with nails, over 30 tonnes of nails were purchased and hammered into it. Many of the wooden forms were pre-drilled so the donors were guided into making a predetermined pattern. In others the sole aim was to cover the wooden form with a solid patina of nails to give a total metallic finish. Coloured nails were also used to create patterns, and polished nails to give a shiny metallic finish. Obviously, such large projects as the Hindenburg Nagelfiguren were sponsored by the civic authorities or the Government. The City of Berlin sponsored the Hindenburg Project. The Red Cross was also very active in arranging exhibitions of militaria in many cities and these usually incorporated Nagelfiguren. A popular Red Cross Nagelfiguren at these exhibitions was a German U-boat. Later on in the war, when public confidence in both the army and navy waned, aircraft Nagelfiguren became dominant. In these large Nagelfiguren projects, purpose made numbered plaques were also sold for attachment in lieu of several nails.
Private persons, or groups, also produced Nagelfiguren in large numbers; predominantly crosses. After the end of the Great War, many Nagelfiguren were created as personal memorials to German soldiers who died in the war and to the Prisoners of War who had not yet returned to their Homeland. In this utilisation there was an implied message 'You are not forgotten, and never will be'. A sort of permanent object indicating unflagging remembrance over the years. Many of these objects still exist today in Germany and serve as private war memorials. In this context it should be recalled that, by and large, German soldiers did not have individual marked graves on the Western Front, as did the vast majority of the recovered bodies of the Allies' dead. Multiple and mass German burials were the norm.
The author of this article only came across the concept of the German iron nail crosses en passant whilst researching another subject. Thereafter, absolutely no progress was made until by pure serendipity he mentioned the matter to Mr. Howard Anderson, the Technical WebMaster of the Western Front Association website. Howard Anderson in turn raised the matter with Mr. Christopher J.V. Hunt of the Imperial War Museum (IWM), London. From the vast resources of the IWM, Christopher Hunt located a reference in a book entitled 'Material Culture, Memory and the First World War' by Nicholas Saunders (2004). Published by Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group. ISBN 0-415-28053-2 and 0-415-28054-0. This contains an excellent section on Nagelfiguren by Susanne Brandt. As this is the only major reference that the author has located, the above article has been largely based on reworked data abstracted from this source, and due acknowledgement of this is gratefully extended to the author and publishers.
Interested parties are strongly recommended to refer to the full published text for a wider overview of the subject. There are also several informative illustrations.
Addendum - Copyright restrictions
Illustrations of a few examples of German iron nail memorials can be found in the literature, but the writer was unable to obtain from the publisher's copyright exemption to reproduce them. To overcome this restriction, it was decided to produce, from scratch, an actual example of a German nail memorial. Hopefully, it was considered that such an undertaking would also give some understanding of exactly how the device was constructed and the materials used.
The format chosen was an iron nail cross, based on the two dimensional German insignia used on German aircraft from 1915-17. The German Iron Cross award for gallantry in the Great War was also very similar in design, but rather more complex and heavily embossed. A reproduction Nagelfiguren made by the author using 240 nails.
Several considerations were taken into account:
- The basic material used by the Germans for the cross was a softwood: it was easily carved and receptive to the nails being hammered into it. But, obviously, if a large number of nails were to be hammered into plain wood, it might split or splinter. So 32mm marine plywood was used to create this particular paradigm cross.
- For maxim strength and rigidity, this cross was cut out from the whole plywood sheet using a jigsaw. This was then painted with black satin textured gloss paint.
- The dimensions of the cross are uniform - 25cm in height and 25cm in width. This facilitated its ready manipulation during the drilling and nailing process.
- Since, today, the purchase of hand-made nails of suitable proportions would be prohibitively expensive, standard, machine wrought, round, steel wood-nails were used.
- To obtain a suitable size of nail head, 70mm long nails with a 7mm-diameter head were used. However, to obtain a suitable length of nail compatible with the 32mm thickness of the plywood cross, each nail was cut to a length of 25mm and resharpened on a grindstone.
- Experiments showed that it would be extremely difficult to simply hammer the nails into the plywood with the desired degree of precision. Such was the density of the nails that in the task of hammering them in, the surface of the cross could be easily damaged or the track of the nail go awry.
- So the pattern of the iron cross design was marked out in pencil and 2mm diameter pilot holes drilled 20mm deep to make the appropriate pattern.
- The cut nails were then carefully hammered into the pilot holes so that the heads touched each other to make a continuous line of nail-heads. The pre-drilled holes also gave the advantage that a wayward nail could be readily removed and, after appropriate adjustment, hammered in again to correctly follow the pattern.
- It is to be noted that many of the uncompleted German nail memorials show these pilot pre-drilled holes. This guided the nail donor as to exactly where their nail was to go and to ensure that the integrity the predetermined design was maintained.
- The number nails in each arm of this cross is 60 giving a total of 240 for the whole cross. To prepare by hand such a large number of holes with the required accuracy, and to carefully hammer in the nails without damaging the wooden cross, was a lengthy task. One can only assume that the holes in the larger and more complex pieces of the iron nail memorials - some had literally tons of nails hammered into them - were made by mass production methods. As the individual nails were to be added piecemeal by the individual donor, presumably the time factor was not a problem. Although, no doubt, careful supervision was needed to ensure the insertion of the nails was done carefully and correctly.
In addition to the civic works of iron nail art that were created to raise funds for the Great War, thousands, if not millions, of the iron nail crosses, and other formats, were made as personal fam.ily mementoes/memorials to the servicemen at the Front and in Prisoner of War camps. Many of these family pieces are still faithfully conserved in Germany and Austria as part of the family archive. It is rare for these family memorials to come on the open market; such is the esteem with which the respective family holds them.