Shrapnel Charlie

Shrapnel Charlie

Ivan Synnaeve known as 'Shrapnel Charlie' died on Thuesday March 13th, 2012. We will remember him through his beautiful handmade lead creations that are spread all over the world. The article below we preserve out of respect and underneath you can also see the coverage on Ivan's story. Rest in Peace Ivan !!!

"The story of Ivan Sinnaeve"

In the village of St. Jean, now part of the city of Ypres, and situated about 5 km. from Pondfarm, Ivan Sinnaeve was born in 1953. As so many people of his generation he, as a child, spent hours listening to the stories of the older people about the Great War.
His grandfather, born in 1903, was an excellent storyteller and could endlessly talk about what he as a boy had experienced during those scary years.

Grandfather often expressed his hope that al those stories of what people inflicted on one another and of what they had to endure, would never be lost. Ivan so kept this in his mind but didn't know that so many years later he, unintentionally and unexptedly, would contribute to this wish. life went on.

Ivan grew up and became a carpenter. He got acquainted with a sweet woman, married her and togehter they had children. Quite a regular, average family that saw moments of worrying as well as joy as it occurs in so many homes

In 1991 however fortune changed. Due to an industrial accident, Ivan had to spend months in hospital. When being sent home finally, the doctors told him that from now on he never was to be without pain. Walking so became difficult too. With the help of a cane Ivan could walk just very short distances. Any further distance required the use of a wheelchair.
Resuming work was no out of the question. Dreams and planning the future so were redically changed.

During the summer of 1995 or 1996 something though happened that was to give the life of Ivan and Marie Claire a new and special turn. When having a walk in a town at the seaside, in the window of a toy shop, they saw a box that held all material needed to die-cast some five led soldier figurines.
To Ivan this appeared as something that could perhaps be useful to him, so the box was purchased. Very soon the small piece of lead was used up. The modelling company could provide maore of it but at a rather high cost.
Ivan then got an idea. Ever since years he had found lead shrapnel bullets in his garden, so he could use those to make figurines.
(cf. photo of Stijn and Olivier searching for lead bullets)
After a bit of practising he found out how to separate the lead and the dirt, also he 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.
He then already had several matrixes for making soldiers, horses an guns.
" yes indeed" Ivan smiled, "I again am becoming a child, I play with toy soliers". The friend however responded: "Jee, if the English battlefield tourists wold see this, they would instantly want to have such figurine!".
This friend had a job and thus knew British visitiors of the war cemeteries
were eager to take a souvenir of the battlefields back home.

Though Ivan at first could hardly believe battlefield pilgrims would be pleased with his lead figurines, the idea grew.
He remembered what his late grandfather once entrusted: " take care people do not forget what once happened here and what people here had to endure".

So it happened Ivan started to use these lead figurines and transform those into soldiers from the First World War. He as well purchased moulds that could form the typical gear of the era. Later on he also made his own moulds.
His miniature army expanded with English, Scots, Indian,Australian, American, Belgian, French and Germans infantry and cavalry soldiers. Other items joined 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. Poppies, the Victoria Cross, scael models of war memorials also joined the collection.

Friends brought various finds from the former battlefields as well, e.g. uniform buttons, buckels, bullet shells, broken rum bottles, etc... These thing the were processed as part of the creations.

His imagination and hands so formed a number of nice works. His figurines are arranged on a board in some particular scene,some based on actual war photos, e.g.
German soldeirs attacking with a flame thrower, Anzac soldiers at a boxing match, Belgian soldiers in their trenches at the Yser making war art devices, Scots soldiers who lead away German POW, the Christmas truce of 1914, German reconnaissance cavalry, platoons on the march, etc...

With great patience he forms the, not even 5cm high, figurines, drills little holes in them so to glue the arms and heads on later, glues the rifles and backpack onto them and paints the faces (with the obligate moustaches) and the uniforms in the correct colours. From his large stock of war finfs he uses material to build a poper and fitting scenery
When pain forces Ivan out of bed in the morning, he retreats into his workplace or in the kitchen and concentrates on the making of his figurine soldiers, on the drilling, filing, painting and gluing. While doing this he reflects on the misery the soldiers in the mud of this region at the time had to endure. This way he doesn’t feel his own pain that much or perhaps he feels it in a different way.

How many figurine soldiers Ivan already has made by now? Well , he didn’t count them but it makes something of about 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.

Especially by word of mouth publicity an increasing number of battlefield pilgrims find out about Ivan’s unique hobby. It so happens more and more often that foreigners stand on Ivans' & Claire’s doorstep, asking if they could have a look and if Ivan could demonstrate to them how he makes the soldiers out of the tin bullets. Each time again Ivan then demonstrates the whole process and each time the visitors stand by in admiration, often speechless, watching how again a new miniature soldier-of-peace appears 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.

Ivan so is, each time again, a satisfied man knowing “that’s another soldier who’s returning home”. This is also written on the cards that accompagny 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 now has 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.
On this photo you one his artefacts which Charlie gave to me (Stijn) in return for some footpiece I made for him out of bunker remains.

It does happen that Ivan also makes some larger works. (see below). These special items he creates on the occasion of e.g. remembrance ceremonies also for regiments that visit the battlefields or for families who visit the grave of a fallen relative. A number of his creations so found their honorary place in a regimental or local museum, a military abse, the office of some official or 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 far not complete

"Shrapnel Charlie"

English speaking people of course can pronounce his first name ‘Ivan’, but his typical Flemish surname they, even with the uttermost of efforts, can’t produce 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 as is their Crown Prince too, so we’ll baptise you Charlie, and because you create your figurines out of lead shrapnel bullets, we make it 'Shrapnel Charlie'.”
Ever since Ivan proudly bears his artists name and to all English visitors it’s a relief they don’t have to twist around their tongue in order to produce the impossible Flemish name!

Shrapnel Charlie so gradually became a well-known person. Several local and foreign journalists already stopped by and wrote an article for their newspaper or magazine. The popular Flemish TV show “Afrit 9” was at Ivan’s place in 2000 to make a coverage on Ivan and his work.

Ivan’s work also was show 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 as well Shrapnel Charlie’ name surfaces regularly

Out of the many anecdotes and stories Ivan heard from visitors, he could already compose a full book. If that book ever will be written still remains a question. Ivan anyway does have a title for this book: “Tears do not have a nationality”.

Does Ivan get wealthy from his work? Yes, indeed he visibly does. Only, hold on a moment before this is misunderstood.
If one would think he financially improves of this work, then that is certainly not the case. The fee he asks for such a miniature is hardly enough to pay back the paint and the use of the gas for the melting. It so doesn’t concern that kind of wealth.
Very often even ‘special visitors’ receive a work of his for free, as a present. It’s by far not at all Ivan’s goal to earn money out of what once caused so much horror and sorrow. He does really appreciate though when his visitors afterwards do send him a postcard or photo from their hometown 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) to Ivan a typical military souvenir or the national Flag of their homeland as a token of their appreciation of gratitude. In this way Ivan has gathered riches: the friendship and appreciation from people from all over the world. This 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 received a Medal (Cross of Gratitude) from the (Belgian) National Federation of Veterans of 1940-1945 as a token of their appreciation for his work. At the following links you can find some articles on Ivan out of 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 that before, found a remarkable goal in their lives. You’ll find almost optimistic man. While Ivan demonstrates his activities, he tells the one joke after the other causing a cascade of laughter over the whole place. A visit to Shrapnel Charlie won’t be forgotten easily as also the message his little soldiers spread all over the world will not be forgotten.



"Schrapnel Charlie and The Scottish Memorial"

When Ivan heard about the idea that at last a Scottish monument in Flanders was to be erected, he was immediately very enthousiast. It was his idea to make a special limited edition of his famous piper model (probably the most wanted model of all his designs) and have these models sold with the sole purpose to raise funds for this project.
Ivan doesn’t want to be paid for his efforts. He insists that every penny should go to the fundraising of this all-Scottish monument, which will commemorate the involvement of all Scottish soldiers on the Western Front.
The Scottish Monument Project wants to erect a permanent memorial to 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 build near Zonnebeke- Passchendaele, at the palce called "Frezenberg". Three Scottish Divisions were involved in the bitter fighting here between 31 of July and the end of September 1917 (3rd Ypres) in this particular area.
The new monument will be similar in shape and size as many of the town- and parish memorials in Scotland, in this way symbolizing the bond between the hometowns of the soldiers and the former battlefield. It thus 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.