Fergus Read
Monday 2 July 2018
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.

souvenirs and ephemera

Bullet crucfix

souvenirs and ephemera

Bullet crucfix

Upright of cross formed from two cartridges. They stand on a circular base, into which the nose of the lower cartridge is inserted. The upper cartridge is cut-off at the base and soldered to the base of the lower one. The arms of the cross are made from bullets inserted base-first into this upper cartridge case.

Who might have owned trench art?

Many servicemen bought or made trench art as souvenirs for themselves or as gifts for friends and family.

souvenirs and ephemera

Paper knife

souvenirs and ephemera

Paper knife

This souvenir 'paper knife' was brought home by John Denny, a Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) orderly who had served in Gallipoli and the Mesopotamia during the First World War Paper knives made from battlefield scrap were a common form of 'Trench Art' during the First World War.

Production

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.

souvenirs and ephemera

Jug

souvenirs and ephemera

Jug

British 18-pounder Mark II brass shell case converted into a 'trench art' jug with cap badge of Royal Engineers and handle made from two 7.92mm German rifle rounds. Made by (142817) Sapper E Southgate (Royal Engineers) whilst he was manning an underground telephone exchange in the Ypres district during the First World War.

'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.

souvenirs and ephemera

Model plane

souvenirs and ephemera

Model plane

An example of French 'trench art', formerly the property of Private F H Warren who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) during the First World War.

Useful websites and books for further research

Website sources

Beauty from the battlefield: 10 pieces of trench art (IWM)
Examples of trench art

Wikipedia 
Wikipedia entry giving a good overview of the subject.

Books

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, 19141939 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, 19141918 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 WarVol. 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.

Related Content

A non-voided gilt metal Royal Engineers headdress badge, the badge is shaped around the emblem which comprises GRV monogram within crowned Garter surrounded by a laurel wreath, there is a scroll below embossed with the name of the regiment 'ROYAL ENGINEERS', the badge is complete with a slider.
© IWM (INS 16860)
First World War
Military Uniform Badges and Portrait Photographs
Detachable badges in metal or cloth are a key element of military uniforms. They can be worn  on a cap, collar, shoulder, arm, or cuff. They can be stitched, or attached with brass pins or ‘sliders’. 
British First World War Service Medals.
© IWM (OMD 790), (OMD 791), (OMD 792), (OMD 794), (OMD 1456), (OMD 1042)
First World War
British First World War Service Medals
A Service Medal is awarded to all those who meet a particular set of criteria. These criteria are usually that an individual has served in a specific area, usually for a specified minimum time between set dates.
Soldier's Demobilisation Account, Documents 9603.
Soldier's Demobilisation Account. IWM (Documents.9603).
Objects from the First World War
Demobilisation Papers
Demobilisation Papers were issued to every soldier after they were demobilised (taken out of active service) at the end of the war. Any soldier who was still serving at the end of the war would have received these papers.