Anniversary of an unusual linkage

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | November 10, 2016

The only U.S. government-issued military rosary is 100 years old

This year marks an anniversary of a unique military/religious partnership in prayer.

2016 is the centennial of the only military-issued rosary requisitioned by the U.S. government.

Sometimes called the “World War I rosary” or the “soldier’s rosary,” the 1916 military rosary was commissioned by what was then called the “War Department” and is now known as the Department of Defense. The United States did not enter what later became known as World War I until April 1917, but the conflict in Europe had started in 1914 and was escalating. Entering the conflict appeared inevitable.

Various trial rosaries were made first.  When the design was decided up, various manufacturers were commissioned to create the rosaries for the government under this military contract. None of them placed a manufacturer mark on the rosaries. Between the trial rosaries and the various makers, the number of rosaries that came into public use is not really known.

The trial rosaries would include some made of the metals that were later rejected after tested. These included pewter, tin and copper beads, which did not hold up under what would be field conditions.

Eventually, the War Department’s choice settled on brass or bronze beads coated with a thin silver wash. Because these metal rosaries could catch light — giving away troops’ locations to the enemy — they were also coated with a dull black finish, sometimes called “bluing,” a process also often used by gunsmiths. (Most of the silver — and the bluing — wore off with use, so WWI rosaries are most often a dull gold color.)

Military rosaries, despite what some records say, were never distributed directly to soldiers. Instead, they were given to chaplains, who then gave them to soldiers in the field if they asked for them. Catholic chaplains also received their own personal rosaries from the War Department. These chaplain rosaries were made of sterling silver and resembled the military rosary in all other respects except that the crucifix and medal were stamped “sterling.”

These military-issue rosaries are sometimes called “pull chain rosaries,” because their beads and the links between them resemble metal pull chains on lamps of the early 20th century.

Sometimes people will find military rosaries in stores or on the internet that are listed as “World War II rosaries.” They look just like the World War I rosaries. This is because they are the same. Rosaries that were left over from WWI were then warehoused and later distributed to soldiers during WWII.  However, they are the same rosaries commissioned in 1916.

Identifying military rosaries is difficult, again because there were various manufacturers hired by the War Department. However, there have since been copies made and, yes, even some forgeries. So it is best to be wary about locating “a WWI rosary.”

Some of the key identifying characteristics of an authentic 1916 rosary are:

  • The pull chain design, always made with round beads (Sometimes the beads are oblong);
  • The rosary and centerpiece medal have no engraving marks such as a maker’s mark (except for the silver chaplain rosaries);
  • The centerpiece medal is usually depicts Our Lady of Sorrows on one side, but always has Jesus carrying the cross on the reverse. This Jesus medal was meant to represent the soldiers themselves, as they carried the weight of freedom on their own shoulders;
  • The rosaries are always 16 to 17 inches long, depending on the size of the crucifix.

Sometimes 1916 rosaries can be found coated with silver or gold and still be authentic. The gold-plating or silver washes were not done by the government or any of its contractors. However, gilt or silver were sometimes added by some soldiers when they returned home. The addition of gold or silver was usually done by local jewelers.

In recent times, to honor the history of these WWI rosaries, some companies have designed new rosaries that look similar to those from 1916. However, the newer rosaries are purposely different from the military issue rosaries in certain ways, so as to honor the older rosaries and keep them distinct.

Most often these newer rosaries keep the pull chain design and are made of bronze or brass — as well as silver and even gold. They will have various crucifixes — often a bit more ornate than the 1916 original. And many of them have other medals, such as St. Benedict or St. Michael medals. They are sometimes called “battle beads” or “combat rosaries” to distinguish them from the 1916 military issued rosary.

As we mark Veterans Day this year, we could take a moment to pray for the soldiers who, 100 years ago, sent up their own prayers on the beads they carried to the battlefields of Europe.


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