Today I learned that Ivan Sinnaeve, better known as Shrapnel Charlie, had passed away yesterday, via The Belgians Have Not Forgotten blog. And the news continues out into the world, via those who knew him, everyone sad to have lost him. He had a way about him that left people smiling.
I went searching, and found my story of meeting this remarkable man ... back in 2009.
I met Shrapnel Charlie yesterday. Meeting him was as a part of my quest to create a photography exhibition about the people out here on the Westhoek ... the people who take care of the memory of the soldiers who died in WW1.
Valerie was my guide, my patient guide, who drove me to Ieper where we both enjoyed meeting this lovely man. He was quiet yet brimming full of fun. It soon became clear that he was also a man known to many all over the world.
Ivan Sinnaeve is his real name but he explained that the Canadians had needed to find their own way of dealing with his ‘Russian-sounding’ name and then, failing with the Belgian pronunciation (E-van), they decided to christen him Shrapnel Charlie, in recognition of the magic he works with the old shrapnel found out here on the WW1 battlefields of Flanders. Shrapnel he said he had initially been accustomed to finding out in this vegetable garden, as turning the soil anywhere in this area usually means finding some artefact from that terrible war.
A carpenter by trade, Ivan’s career was cut short when his back was broken in an accident, leaving him with constant pain and time on his hands. He told us he fell into this business of recreating soldiers and regiments from long ago ...but not as a real business. Ivan, like so many who work hard at preserving the memories of the soldiers who died on Flanders Fields, never charges anything that would see him making a profit from the war dead.
We took us out to his garden shed, a space considered holy by so many kiwi men I knew growing up ... but even I have to admit, his shed was magnificent. I could imagine the kiwi blokes drooling a little, as they ran their eyes over the collection of ‘stuff’ Ivan keeps out there. The shell - preserved so you could see how it worked internally, timers on the end and including the containers of shrapnel. He took us through the process of making a shrapnel soldier and I ended up learning more than expected from my photo-shoot.
This was no passive photography shoot. Ivan is a charming and amusing raconteur. And charmed we were, by this man who has created so many thousands of shrapnel soldiers during his time. We were sad to leave, as we could have easily spent the day with him however, it was time to give him back some of the peace we had shattered, while photographing him doing this thing and that.
Many thanks to Ivan, and to Valerie, it was a lovely way to spend a morning.