Italians in the Woods

A 1928 1 Lire nickel

From late 1940 to 1943 the woodlands in my part of Hertfordshire were full of parties of Italian POWs. Most of these originated from the British Army’s successes in North Africa, but one or two were aircrews that had been shot down over Britain in November 1940. At this time, around Stevenage, many of the woodlands were being cut down to provide pit props for the coal mines up north due to the massive demands a wartime economy made on the provision of coal – some still bear testimony to this even today. The work of removing the trees was often carried out by Italian POW tree cutters.

The sharp eyed observer will note in these woodlands the huge moss-draped and darkly decaying stumps of once mighty Oaks, Hornbeams, Ash and Beech, which are pretty much the only remaining evidence of this ‘Second Italian Invasion.’ I say ‘second,’ as they had of course been here before under the banners of the mighty legions in the Roman Army way back in 43AD. Evidence of this first invasion is copious in the form of stone scatters and a myriad of coins and brooches that lie in our plough soil in this area. However, as far as evidence of the ‘second invasion’ goes this is purely supported by the tree stumps and, until a few days ago, that was it.

However in a wood near to the village of Weston a coin has just been found that almost certainly belonged to one of the wartime Italian tree cutters. It is a 1928 1 Lire nickel issue found at the base of one of the large decaying tree stumps, and which has inspired lots of speculation about where it came from. Amazingly, some of the more elderly residents in this area recall the Italians being here and some may even have seen the man who lost this very coin.

What of our man then? Well, we will almost certainly never know much about him. Is he still alive? He may well be. As far as I know no Italians married local girls and stayed in the vicinity, but he may well have moved to Bedford, which was a popular area with Italians just after the war. Or perhaps the elderly man playing chess and dipping bread into olive oil outside a small Milanese back street cafe is our man, now and then casting his mind back over 70 years to that day when he took out his lucky keepsake coin and placed it as some type of memorial offering, a thanks for his survival. Perhaps he even wondered if his coin would ever be seen again. Or maybe the coin was simply dropped during a day’s sweaty humid labour as the sound of chopping and crashing branches echoed throughout the cuckoo filled woodlands?

Much of this theorising is what makes our hobby of metal detecting so special – aside the physical side of things, the finds you can make with a silver metal detector or adventures to be had with a handheld metal detector can really get your mind moving too. As far as I know this is the first readily identifiable metallic evidence to be found in relation to the wartime Italian POW presence in this area. Of course it is possible the coin may have been lost in other circumstances – maybe in the 1950`s by a visiting Italian student, for example. However given the remote nature of this patch of woodland, the date on the coin, and the fact that Italian POWs were actually here I believe that this is the real provenance of this piece of lost change.

Nowadays the woodlands are quite peaceful and echo to the sounds of axes no more – perhaps the odd chain saw now and then (and the ‘beep’ of a handheld metal detector..), a sign of modern times. Of course the Italians have now gone and sadly so it appears have most of our Cuckoos….what a wonderful metal detecting find this coin is….

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