What is trench art?
Trench Art is a misleading term given today to a wide variety of decorative items, sometimes also functional, produced during or soon after the First World War (though the term is also applied to products of both earlier and more recent wars). 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-purpose 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. However, few examples were fashioned literally in the trenches. Nor were all made by soldiers.
Who might have owned trench art?
Many servicemen bought or made trench art as souvenirs for themselves or as gifts for friends and family.
It is probable that only the very smallest bone and wooden objects were created in the front line. The source is more likely to be workshop troops behind the lines. They had the materials, machinery, skill and occasional spare time, and money could be made selling souvenirs to soldiers heading home. In France and Belgium work to make souvenirs was also given to civilians displaced by the war. Trench art was also made ‘at home’ during the war by those awaiting call-up; also by wounded and convalescing men, for whom handicrafts involving wood, metal and embroidery formed part of their rehabilitation. And many no doubt personalised souvenirs made by others by adding inscriptions.
It is tempting to think that an ancestor made a piece of trench art held by a family, but that may not be the case – there was a large manufacturing trade during and after the war. So it may have been bought – by the soldier, or by a relative on a subsequent battlefield visit.
One source of trench art often overlooked was the major department stores. In the immediate post-war period they offered to turn war souvenirs such as shell fuze heads – often brought back by soldiers – into wooden-based paperweights. And if ex-soldiers had no souvenir, they could be provided. This source can be the only explanation for the widespread examples of bulkier trench art – such as dinner gongs and poker stands made from shell charge cases. These would have fitted in no kitbag.
'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. And in Europe (notably in France and Belgium), original First World War shell casings are still being re-worked to meet a growing trade.
Useful websites and books for further research
Trench Art – Symbols and Memories of the Great War and Beyond
General introduction by Dr Nick Saunders, a leading author on the subject – see below.
Beauty from the battlefield: 10 pieces of trench art (IWM)
Examples of trench art
Wikipedia entry giving a good overview of the subject.
Copies of all these books can be freely consulted from open shelves at the Explore History Centre at IWM London.
Trench Art: A Brief History and Guide, 1914–1939 by Dr Nicholas Saunders
(Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, 2nd revised edition, 2011)
The main easily-found source, combines both historical introduction and a collectables guide; includes a list of other relevant websites.
Trench Art: An Illustrated History by Jane Kimball
(Silverpenny Press, Davis, California, 2004)
Large encyclopaedic volume – the only one.
Tommy’s War: British Military Memorabilia, 1914–1918 by Peter Doyle
(The Crowood Press Ltd, Marlborough, Wiltshire, 2008)
Illustrated examples, in a wide-ranging book.
Military Collectables: An international directory of twentieth-century militaria by Richard O’Neill Joe Lyndhurst
(Salamander Books Ltd, London, 1983)
Illustrates trench art, and much else besides.
The Collector and Researchers Guide to the Great War, Vol. 2: Small Arms, Munitions, Militaria by Howard Williamson
(Anne Williamson, Harwich, Essex, 2003)
Contains details on the markings typically stamped on fuse heads, shell charge cases, bullet cases and grenades, from UK, France and Germany, often incorporated into ‘trench art’; p1–94.