Shrapnel Charlie

Shrapnel Charlie

Ivan Synnaeve, known as 'Shrapnel Charlie', died on Tuesday March 13th, 2012. We will remember him through his beautiful handmade lead creations that are now to be found all around the world. We include this article on our website as a mark of respect, and you can see further coverage of Ivan’s story below. Rest in Peace, Ivan !!!

"The story of Ivan Sinnaeve"

IIn the village of St. Jean, now part of the town of Ypres and lying about 5 km. from Pondfarm, Ivan Sinnaeve was born in 1953. Like so many people of his generation, as a child he spent hours listening to stories told by older people about the Great War. His grandfather, born in 1903, was an excellent storyteller and could talk endlessly about what he had experienced as a boy during those frightening years. His grandfather often expressed the hope that all the stories of what people had inflicted on one another and of what they had to endure, would never be lost. Accordingly, Ivan kept this in his mind, but he didn't know that many years later, unintentionally and unexpectedly, he would contribute to this wish. Life went on: Ivan grew up and became a carpenter. He met a sweet lady, married her, and together they had children. Quite a regular, average family, seeing moments of worry as well as joy, as happens in so many homes. In 1991, however, their luck changed. As the result of an accident at work, Ivan had to spend months in hospital. When he eventually went home, the doctors told him that from then on he would never be without pain. Walking became difficult, too, though with the help of a stick, Ivan could walk very short distances. Any further distance required the use of a wheelchair. Resuming work was now out of the question. Dreams and planning the future were radically changed. During the summer of 1995 or 1996, however, something happened that was to bring a new and special turn to the lives of Ivan and Marie-Claire: while taking a walk in a seaside town, in the window of a toy shop they saw a box that held all the materials needed to die-cast five lead soldier figurines. To Ivan this looked like something that might be useful to him, so the box was purchased. The original small piece of lead was very quickly used up; the modelling company could have provided more, but at quite a high cost. Ivan then had an idea: for many years he had been finding lead shrapnel bullets in his garden, and now he realised that he could use them to make figurines. (cf. photo of Stijn and Olivier searching for lead bullets) With a bit of practice, he found out how to separate the lead from the dirt; he also learned how many different types of lead bullets there were. One day a friend came for a visit at the very moment Ivan was making lead soldier figurines. By now he already had several matrixes for making soldiers, horses and guns. "Yes, indeed" Ivan smiled, "I’m reverting to childhood, playing with toy soldiers". The friend, however, replied: "Gee, if English battlefield tourists could see this, they would want to have figurines like this straightaway!". This friend knew from his job that British visitors to the war cemeteries were eager to take battlefield souvenirs back home. Though Ivan could hardly believe at first that battlefield pilgrims would like his lead figurines, the idea grew. He remembered what his late grandfather had vowed: “Take care that people do not forget what happened here in the past, and what people here had to endure". So it came about that Ivan started to transform his lead figurines specifically into soldiers from the First World War. He has subsequently purchased moulds to shape typical gear of the period, and has also made his own moulds. His miniature army has expanded with English, Scottish, Indian,Australian, American, Belgian, French and German infantry and cavalry soldiers. Other types of items have been added to the series, e.g. the statue of 'Notre Dame des Tranchees' (Our Lady of the Trenches) so called by the soldiers and to whom they prayed for strength and protection in their days of misery and fear. The collection has grown further to include poppies, the Victoria Cross, and scale models of war memorials. Ivan’s friends began bringing along various finds from the old battlefields, e.g. uniform buttons, buckles, bullet cartridges, broken rum bottles, etc., which could also be used as part of the creative process. Using his imagination and his hands, Ivan creates many fine composite works, setting his figurines on boards to show particular scenes, some of them based on actual war photos, e.g. German soldiers attacking with a flame-thrower, Anzac soldiers at a boxing match, Belgian soldiers in their trenches at the Yser making trench-art artefacts, Scots soldiers leading away a German PoW, the Christmas truce of 1914, German reconnaissance cavalry, platoons on the march, etc... With great patience Ivan is able to form figurines, less than 5cm high, then drill little holes in them so as to glue the arms and heads on later, glue the rifles and backpacks onto them, and paint the faces (with the obligatory moustaches) and the uniforms in the correct colours. From his large stock of war finds he uses material to create appropriate settings. When pain forces Ivan out of bed in the morning, he retreats into his workplace or the kitchen and concentrates on making his figurine soldiers, as well as drilling, filing, painting and gluing. While doing this he reflects on the misery the soldiers in the mud of this region had to endure at the time. In this way, he doesn’t feel his own pain so much, or perhaps he feels it in a different way. How many figurine soldiers has Ivan made by now? Well, he’s never kept count, but he makes something like two thousand a year. How many does he want to make ? That number he is sure of: 55,000, because that is the number of missing soldiers of the British Empire whose names are commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.



" Another one who finally returns home..."

About two thousand soldiers a year: are all of those at Ivan's home? No, these figurines are spread all over the world. Thanks especially to publicity by word of mouth, an increasing number of battlefield pilgrims find out about Ivan’s unique hobby. As a result, more and more overseas visitors turn up on Ivan & Claire’s doorstep, asking if they could have a look and if Ivan could show them how he makes soldiers out of lead bullets. Each time, Ivan demonstrates the whole process, and each time the visitors stand by in admiration, often speechless, watching a new miniature soldier-of-peace appear from the mould. They hold the figurines in their hands, full of respect and often moved. Ever so glad they are to take these little soldiers back home. IAnd, each time, Ivan gains the satisfaction of knowing “that’s another soldier who’s returning home”. This is also written on the cards that accompany the figurines: “Out of the lead of WW1 shrapnel shells that were found on the former battlefields of the Ypres Salient (Belgium)". Lead that once was killing soldiers has now been reshaped into a new soldier who can finally return to his native land with a message of peace: that, indeed, is Shrapnel Charlie’s motivation. In this photo you can see one his creations that Charlie gave me (Stijn) in return for a base that I made for him out of some remains of a bunker. Ivan does also produce some larger works (see below). These special items he creates on the occasion of e.g. remembrance ceremonies, or for regiments that visit the battlefields, or for families visiting the grave of a fallen relative. A number of his creations have found their place of honour in regimental or local museums, military bases, local government offices, and in the homes of families who visited a relative’s grave over here. IN 2002 he made a beautiful crucifix for the technical school at Waregem (West-Flanders, Belgium). Ivan’s work can be found in Belgium, France, The Netherlands, England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, the USA, Germany, etc . This list, though, is by no means comprehensive.

"Shrapnel Charlie"

English speaking people can, of course, pronounce his first name ‘Ivan’, but even with the utmost effort, they can’t pronounce his typical Flemish surname in an understandable way. One day a Canadian visitor spontaneously invented the name “Shrapnel Charlie”. He said: “You know, you are doing so much for the British that in fact you should have an English name. Half of the British are called Charles like their Crown Prince, so we’ll baptise you Charlie, and because you create your figurines out of lead shrapnel bullets, we’ll make it 'Shrapnel Charlie'.” Ever since, Ivan has proudly used his artist’s name, and to all English visitors it’s a relief they don’t have to twist their tongue around in order to pronounce the impossible Flemish name! This Shrapnel Charlie gradually became a well-known person. Several local and foreign journalists stopped by and wrote articles for their newspapers or magazines. The popular Flemish TV show “Afrit 9” was at Ivan’s place in 2000 to do a feature on Ivan and his work. Ivan’s work has been shown at occasional exhibitions e.g. at the Yser Tower at Dixmude (June-December 2002) and at the “In Flanders Fields” Museum in Ypres (Oct.2000 – April 2005). At the “Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917” at Zonnebeke one can also find Ivan’s miniature soldiers in the scale model of the ruins of the former Abbey Church. On the internet, too, the name of ‘Shrapnel Charlie’ surfaces regularly. Out of the many anecdotes and stories Ivan heard from visitors, he could easily compose a whole book. Whether such a book will ever be written still remains a question - but Ivan already has a title for this book: “Tears do not have a nationality”. Does Ivan gain any wealth from his work? Yes, indeed, you can see he does. Only, hold on a moment before you get the wrong idea. If you think he gains financially from his work, that is certainly not the case. The fee he asks for such a miniature is hardly enough to cover the cost of the paint and the gas used for melting. It’s not that kind of wealth. Very often, ‘special visitors’ receive a work of his for free, as a present. It’s certainly not Ivan’s aim to earn money out of what once caused so much horror and sorrow. He really does appreciate it, though, when his visitors send him a postcard or photo afterwards showing their homeland or the place where they live. These cards give him some idea of the new home his little soldiers have found. Often visitors or people from particular regiments give (or send) Ivan a typical military souvenir, or the national flag of their homeland, as a token of their appreciation or gratitude. This is how Ivan has gathered riches: the friendship and appreciation of people from all over the world, the kind of riches one cannot buy, only deserve. A great honour was given to Ivan in 2005 when he was created Honorary Brigadier of the Belgian Military Base at Ypres (Qualified Centre for Support of Materials and Products). Abour four years earlier he had received a Medal (Cross of Gratitude) from the (Belgian) National Federation of Veterans of 1940-1945 as a token of their appreciation of his work. At the following links you can find some articles on Ivan from the international press. Artikel 1, Artikel 2, Artikel 3, Artikel 4.
Anyone who visits Ivan and Marie-Claire at home will find a most friendly atmosphere of hospitality. You’ll meet a fantastic man and woman who, even though they never expected it before, have found a remarkable goal in their lives. You’ll find a most optimistic man. While Ivan demonstrates his activities, he tells one joke after another, causing a cascade of laughter over the whole place. A visit to Shrapnel Charlie won’t be forgotten easily, in the same way that the message his little soldiers spread all over the world will not be forgotten.



"Schrapnel Charlie and The Scottish Memorial"

When Ivan heard about a project to finally erect a Scottish monument in Flanders, he was immediately very enthusiastic. He came up with the idea of making a special limited edition of his famous piper model (probably the most sought-after model of all his designs) and having these models sold with the sole purpose of raising funds for the project. Ivan doesn’t want to be paid for his efforts. He insists that every penny should go towards fundraising for the Scottish Monument Project which will erect a permanent memorial to commemorate the involvement of all Scottish soldiers who fought on the Western Front, regardless of their unit. It will be made by the Scottish company Fyfe Glenrock out of Corrennie Pink, i.e. a Scottish granite. The monument will be built at Frezenberg near Zonnebeke-Passchendaele. Three Scottish Divisions were involved in the bitter fighting between 31st July and the end of September 1917 (Third Ypres) in this particular area. The new monument will be similar in shape and size to many of the town and parish memorials in Scotland, thus symbolizing the bond between the hometowns of the soldiers and the former battlefield. Accordingly, it will have the shape of a Celtic Cross or High Cross. It will also be a reminder of the involvement of the 1st South African Brigade, which was part of the 9th Scottish Division. Note: The monument was dedicated on August 25th 2007. Note: The monument was dedicated on August 25th 2007.