Dispelling Some Myths: 'Trench Art'
Updated: Nov 29, 2022
One of our favourite sources of entertainment and ideas for this Blog are derived from the BBC’s ‘Bargain Hunt’ television series. As regular viewers, and frequent visitors to antique centres, our knowledge of antiques and collectibles has improved no end over the last few years courtesy of the programme. For those unfamiliar with the show, it is an entertainment programme where two pairs of contestants are challenged to buy antiques from shops or a fair and then sell them in an auction for a profit. Fairly frequently contestants are drawn to decorated spent artillery shell cases which their guiding expert will, without doubt, call ‘Trench Art’. What then follows is the explanation that such objects were handcrafted by soldiers in the trenches of the First World War.
It is an image that appeals to modern notions of desolate soldiers whiling away their boredom and fear in the wet, muddy trenches at the Front making commemorative pieces to send back to their distant loved ones. While this is an emotive picture, it is one that is largely a fantasy. For starters, soldiers on both sides in the First World War did not spend all their time in the trenches. Describing the typical daily life experienced by soldiers in the Great War, Senior Curator at the British Library Paul Cornish wrote:
‘For the soldiers of the First World War fighting was an exceptional circumstance, rather than the norm. For many, life consisted of toiling to keep those at the front supplied. But the frontline troops themselves were rotated to ensure that time spent facing the enemy was balanced by periods of rest and, occasionally, home-leave. The determination of soldiers to keep fighting could be strongly influenced by the regularity of this rotation.’
Already the notion that ‘Trench Art’ was crafted by soldiers actually in the trenches is untenable. Yet before we look at who may have made these objects, how do we define ‘Trench Art’? What is it?
What is Trench Art?
To be truly classed as ‘Trench Art’ an item’s manufacture should be directly linked to armed conflict or its consequences. According to the Imperial War Museum, however, ‘Trench Art is a misleading term applied to a wide variety of decorative items, sometimes also functional, produced during or soon after the First World War. They were made in all the countries engaged in combat. Ashtrays, matchbox holders, letter knives, model tanks and planes are typically found. Often they are re-purposed lead bullets, brass recovered from spent charge cases, and copper from shell driving bands, although carved wooden and bone pieces, and embroideries are also seen.’
While the practice certainly flourished during World War I, 'Trench Art' also describes souvenirs manufactured by service personnel during World War II. Moreover, the history of the practice spans conflicts from the Napoleonic Wars to the present day. For the historian, ‘Trench Art’ provides tangible evidence for the materials available to the makers and, on occasion, may offer insights into the maker’s feelings and emotions about the war. Yet few examples were fashioned literally in the trenches. Nor were all made by soldiers.
Who might have made ‘Trench Art’?
There are four broad categories of ‘Trench Art’:
Items made by soldiers Some servicemen certainly did make ‘Trench Art’ as souvenirs for themselves or as gifts for friends and family. Most, however, probably bought objects from vendors well away from the Front. Of the former, it is probable that only the very smallest bone and wooden objects were created in the actual front line trenches. The daily routine (see InfoBox) for those troops in close proximity to the enemy most likely did not allow much time for handicrafts. One need also remember that soldiers would regularly rotate through a basic sequence of being deployed or fighting in the front line, followed by a period of time in the reserve or support line, then rest and recuperation miles behind the front.
The source of most soldiers ‘Trench Art’ is therefore much more likely to be workshop troops in rear echelon areas. They had the materials, machinery, skill and occasional spare time to do so. More importantly, money could be made selling souvenirs to soldiers transiting the rear on their way home.
Wounded and convalescing soldiers were encouraged to work at handicrafts involving wood, metal and embroidery as part of their rehabilitation. ‘Trench Art’ was also made ‘at home’ during the war by those awaiting call-up.
Items made by POWs and internees A second category of ‘Trench Art’ consists of items made by prisoners of war and interned civilians. POWs had good reasons to make decorative objects: free time and limited resources. Much POW work was therefore done with the express intention of trading the finished article for food, money or other privileges. Examples of straw work or scrimshaw (scrollwork, engravings, and carvings done in bone or ivory) still survive that were made by French soldiers imprisoned in England during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century.
Items made by civilians In France and Belgium work to make souvenirs was also given to civilians displaced by the war. Those unemployed because of the fighting were quick to exploit a new market to make money. Embroidered postcards were produced in what quickly became a cottage industry, with civilians buying the surrounds and embroidering a panel of gauze. These postcards depicted regimental crests or patriotic flags and national symbols in abundance, and millions were produced over the course of the war.
At war's end, when civilians began to reclaim their shattered communities, a new market appeared in the form of pilgrims and tourists. Over the ensuing twenty years mountains of discarded debris, shell casings, and castoff equipment were slowly recycled, with mass-produced town crest motifs being stuck onto bullets, shell casings, fuse caps, and other paraphernalia to be sold to tourists.
One often overlooked civilian source of ‘Trench Art’ was the major department stores. In the immediate post-war period they offered to turn war souvenirs such as shell fuses, often brought back by soldiers, into wooden-based paperweights for example. If an ex-soldier had no wartime souvenir, then the department stores could oblige. This source may indeed explain how the bulkier ‘Trench Art’, such as dinner gongs and poker stands made from shell charge cases, which clearly would not have fitted in a soldier’s kitbag came to be so widespread.
Commercial items The fourth and final category is purely commercial production resulting from the post-war sale of tonnes of surplus government materiel. Undoubtedly some of this was converted to souvenirs of the conflict. Ship breaking, particularly if the ship had been involved in significant events such as the Battle of Jutland, resulted in wood from the ship being turned into miniature barrels, letter racks, and boxes. The addition of small brass plaques announcing the military connection or historical significance made such items commercially viable.
'Trench Art' today
‘Trench Art’ continues to be made today. Across the world, and especially in Africa and the Middle East, civilians and former combatants re-fashion munitions and other war detritus to meet a tourist and export market. So, while it is tempting to think that an ancestor hand-crafted a piece of ‘Trench Art’ held by a family, that may not be the case. There was a large commercial trade during and after the war. Objects may have been bought by the soldier, or by a relative on a subsequent battlefield visit. Moreover, in Europe (most notably in France and Belgium), original First World War shell casings are still being re-worked to meet a growing trade.
Cornish, P., (2014), ‘The daily life of soldiers’, British Library, Available online (accessed October 5th, 2022).
Imperial War Museum (www.iwm.org.uk), ‘Trench Art’, Available online (accessed October 5th, 2022).