|By Larry LeMasters
Since the dawn of warfare, soldiers have fashioned art and other decorative items from the materials at hand. Historically, the term “trench art” is applied to art made during the Napoleonic Wars up to the present day; although, this artistic pastime reached its heyday in the trenches of World War I all along the Western Front, which is where this type of art acquired the name “trench” art.
The National Army Museum has a section titled Trench Art WWI—All you need to know, (www.armymuseum.co.nz) which says, “Trench art does not just refer to things made by soldiers in the trenches but objects made by anyone in response to conflict or recycled out of war materials. This includes soldiers, those in the trenches and those far behind the front lines, prisoners of war who made things to pass the time or to trade, and civilians.”
Basically, there are four broad categories associated with trench art — items made by soldiers, items made by POWs and internees, items made by civilians, and commercial items. Working within these four categories, many collectors only seek items made by soldiers, especially those items that suggest they were truly fashioned in the trenches of World War I.
Examples of true trench art are described in George Coppard’s famous World War I adventure With a Machine Gun to Cambrai. Although not published until 1969, Coppard tells of his war time experiences along the Western Front while serving with a machine gun team associated with the 6th Battalion Royal West Surrey Regiment. He served from 1914 until he was severely wounded in 1917.
In the book, Coppard tells how he pressed the buttons on his uniform into the wet clay floor of his trench, making perfect molds. He melted lead from shrapnel and then poured the molten lead into the buttonmolds, making lead replicas of his company’s regimental crest.
Coppard tells of another artistic incident that occurred while he was recovering from wounds. He was in a private house in Birkenhead, opposite Liverpool in England, and, “a kind old lady brought a supply of colored silks and canvas and instructed us in the art of embroidery. A sampler which I produced under her guidance so pleased her that she had it framed for me.”
Soldiers, in an attempt to take their mind off of war, handmade many artistic items while huddled in the muddy clay of French trenches. Rings and knives were easy to make since scrap metal and other recyclable war refuse was always lying around. Many of these items were made by support troops in support trenches as they waited for their turn at the Front.
Of particular interest to collectors are items made from spent bullets, artillery shell casings, shrapnel, or parts off of downed airplanes. Art made from spent casings not only tell stories about the daily life of trench soldiers, they also tell stories about the types of weapons encountered or used by the soldiers. Trench art also provides valuable social and historical accounts of war and its effect on soldiers. Finally, these intriguing art objects provide decorative examples of a soldier’s attempt to create beauty from the ugliness of war.
Bullet casings were used to make letter openers, religious crosses, match safes, and other small items. Common artillery shell casings were used to make shell case vases, which, technically speaking were treasonous objects since shell cases were valuable to the continued war effort and were meant to be picked up and sent back for reloading.
One might wonder how a doughboy in the mud could weld a beautiful crucifix, using shell casings, and the simplest answer is, “He couldn’t.” The National Army Museum explains, “Although there are many objects made by soldiers in the trenches, the majority of soldier-made trench art was designed and created far behind the front lines. Specialist equipment was available in blacksmiths and engineers’ workshops and the men there had enough downtime to make beautiful and intricately finished products.”
Psychologists have long argued why soldiers make trench art. Again, the National Army Museum suggests, “There are many reasons why trench art was created by different people. It could be as simple as passing the time, entertainment or to help soldiers to remember a place or battle. Trench art also became a way for civilians to make a living in war torn lands where so much was destroyed and the rubbish of war became a useful resource. A substantial cottage industry sprang up to produce trench art souvenirs for soldiers and later visitors, which continued throughout the interwar period.”
The National Army Museum online exhibition has a huge collection of World War I trench art, helping to showcase this psychologically riveting part of war and mankind’s yearning for something beautiful in the face of death and destruction.