Trench Art of the Great War

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff

August 2009 | During World War I the popular French magazine Le Pays de France sponsored a series of competitions for the best art pieces created by French soldiers. The magazine called these objects l’artisanat des tranchées. Translated into English as trench art, this term has been used ever since to describe a wide variety of war souvenirs made from battlefield debris or from pieces of military equipment, mostly from the Western Front.

  • Fig. 1. Lighters made by unknown soldiers, c. 1916–1918. Left: Engraved “flanders” on the front and “argonne” on the back. Brass; height 2 1/2, width 2 inches. Right: Engraved “Verdun.” Brass; height 2 1/4, width 1 1/4 inches. The objects illustrated are in the author’s collection; photographs are by the author.

  • Fig. 2. Model of a French 75mm artillery gun made by V. Nicaud, c. 1915. Rifle cartridge, copper bullet, scrap brass, and wood; height 2, length 4 1/2 inches.

  • Fig. 3. Model of a submarine made by an unknown soldier, c. 1918. Rifle cartridges and bullets, scrap brass, and copper wire; height 3, length 6 1/2 inches.

  • Fig. 4. Pair of picture frames made by a Belgian soldier from Belgian canteens, c. 1917.  Aluminum, height of each 6 1/2 inches.

  • Fig. 5.  Model of a German Taubeairplane made by an unknown soldier, c. 1917–1918. Rifle cartridge, brass, and copper; length 5, width 6 inches.

  • Fig. 6. Helmet decorated by an American soldier, 1919. Inscribed “h. g. booth. 110th t.m.b. a.e.f. france. 1918.19” on the rim. Hat size 7 1/4 inches.

  • Fig. 7. Detail of a shell casing decorated by a Middle Eastern artisan, c. 1918. 77mm German artillery shell, height overall 10 3/4 inches.

  • Fig. 8. Shell casing attributed to Andre Derain (1880–1954), c. 1917. 75mm French artillery shell, height 8 inches.

  • Fig. 9. Pair of shell casings decorated by students at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, Jerusalem, c. 1920. German artillery shells inlaid with copper and silver, height of each 11 inches.

  • Fig. 10. Shell casing decorated by an unknown soldier, probably French, c. 1916. Engraved “Souvenir 1914–15–16.” 75mm French artillery shell with copper bullets, height 13 3/4 inches.  

  • Fig. 11. Details of a pair of shell casings decorated by Paul Usunier, 1916. 75mm French artillery shells, height of each shell 9 1/4 inches.

  • Fig. 12. Pair of shell casings decorated by an American soldier, c. 1918. 75mm French artillery shells, height of each 9 inches. On the shell at the left an American soldier greets a French woman; on the shell at the right she offers him a bouquet of flowers.

  • Fig. 13. Vase made by a German civilian internee in Britain, 1916. Carved “Ich vergesse nie was ich gelitten in frein Land der Britten” [I shall never forget what I have suffered in the free land of the British] and “1914 15–16.” Bone, height 10 1/2 inches.

  • Fig. 14. Model of a British tank made by a British soldier, c.1918. Engraved “souvenir 1917,” “1916/lens,” and “cambrai 1918” on the front; and “arras 1915” and “somme 1914” on the back. Brass; height 3, width 5 1/2, depth 3 1/2 inches.

  • Fig. 15. Picture frame made by an American soldier from an airplane propeller tip, c. 1918. Pine; height 15, width 7 1/2 inches. 

  • Fig. 16. Mess kit decorated by an American soldier, 1919. Engraved with the Engineers’ badge, “1st class sgt. wm. a. link”  “G.B.,” “U.S.,” and “A•E•F• 1917–’19.” Aluminum; height 7, width 9, depth 1 1/4 inches.

  • Fig. 17. Matchbox covers, 1918. Top: Engraved “Horseshoer/James Malek/U. S. Army” on the front, “Souvenir France” on the edge, and with a German helmet, trench spade, and a bayonet in a central roundel with “Weltrieg” and “1914–1918”on the back. Aluminum; height 1 1/2, width 1 3⁄8 inches. Bottom: Engraved with leaves, a biplane, “1918,” and “1914” on the front; “Verdun” on the edge; and with flowers and “D. Lines” on the back. Aluminum; height 1 1/2, width 1 3/8 inches.

  • Fig. 18. Cup decorated by a British soldier, 1914. Engraved “from/wilden/somewhere/in france/to. maggie” on the front and “wishing/you a merry/xmas/and a happy/new year/1915” on the back. Aluminum, height 3 inches.

  • Fig. 19. Beadwork snake made by a Turkish prisoner of war in Salonika (Thessaloníki), Greece, 1915. Inscribed in beads “turkish • prisoners • 1915.” Beads and thread, length 57 inches.

     

The term trench art conjures up the image of a mud-spattered World War I soldier in a soggy trench hammering out a souvenir for a loved one at home while dodging bullets and artillery shells. This conception is appealing, but false, for the noise involved in decorating shell casings and other objects would have attracted fire from the enemy. Most examples of trench art made during the Great War were in fact created at a distance from the front lines, either by soldiers in reserve trenches, by prisoners of war, or by convalescing soldiers.

World War I was fought on a global stage never before envisioned in the history of human conflict and was the first to apply modern technology to warfare. Poison gas, machine guns, tanks, and airplanes debuted on its battlefields, and the armies of the Allies and the Central Powers rained millions of artillery shells on each other. In response to the German invasion into Belgium and France in 1914, each opposing army on the Western Front dug roughly parallel networks of trenches along the four hundred miles from Belgium through France to the Swiss border. Soldiers were rotated periodically into frontline trenches where they bravely endured unbelievably wretched conditions, their bodies weakened by inadequate diets and persistent infestations of body lice, and their sanity tested by the effects of massive artillery bombardments. During quiet periods between bombardments, soldiers could creep quietly out of their trenches to collect enemy helmets, canteens, spent bullets, military buttons, and badges from the surrounding area to take home as war souvenirs. Sailors also collected shell fragments and other pieces as evidence of enemy damage to their ships and mounted them onto plaques to keep as war souvenirs.

After the initial German invasion many sections of the trenches were relatively quiet, and Belgian and French soldiers began engraving the items they collected from the battlefield, first to send home to their families and then to sell to other soldiers to supplement their pay. A young British soldier on the Western Front engraved the aluminum cup in Figure 18 to send home to his wife or sweetheart. Because soldiers were forbidden to disclose their positions for security reasons, this piece, like many letters and postcards, was engraved from “somewhere in France”

After the United States entered the war in 1917, the enthusiastic American volunteers who arrived in France became voracious collectors of war souvenirs sold by French soldiers and by the shops behind the front lines that offered decorated shell casings, cigarette lighters, and other examples of trench art. Some American craftsmen with metalworking skills also began to make their own pieces. Mechanic Arthur A. White of Elk Grove, California, was remembered for making his own souvenirs: “His favorite pastime at the front was making souvenirs and we venture to say that ‘White’ has a variety of souvenirs that can’t be equaled.”1

For most people, decorated shell casings are the first things that come to mind when they think of trench art.2 The small shell casing shown at the right in the frontispiece, decorated with a band of holly leaves and the inscription “Anvers [Antwerp] 1914,” expresses the popular opinion that the war would be over by Christmas. In fact, combat lasted for almost four more years, leaving a toll of more than sixteen million dead and twenty-one million wounded by the time the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.

As the slaughter continued, bombardments by both sides consumed artillery shells by the millions—the British fired some four million shells in their initial bombardments on the Somme.3 Although military authorities made an effort to return spent shell casings to munitions factories for reloading, many were purloined by soldiers to make flower vases and other objects. To a trench artist, the country of manufacture of a shell was unimportant. Experienced artisans could easily identify a shell casing that would stand up to the repeated heating and hammering involved in embossing decorative backgrounds or in creating fluted forms (see frontispiece). At first, embossed and engraved decorations were made using primitive tools such as awls made from bedsprings, ice picks, screwdrivers, a variety of hammers, or anything else at hand. Later in the war, it was possible to buy sets of tools and paper and metal patterns for popular designs.4 Flowers, the antithesis of the horrors of war, are the most common motifs found on decorated shell casings (see Figs. 9–10). Other popular motifs include battle names, military badges, details of a soldier’s unit or service, a variety of birds and animals, and portraits of soldiers themselves and the women they had left behind or met abroad (see Fig. 12). Less common are patriotic symbols such as the Belgian lion, the German and American eagles, the French cockerel, and the Welsh dragon, as well as figures of Marianne, Joan of Arc, Britannia, Columbia, and the Statue of Liberty.

The shells detailed in Figure 11 are rare because of the quality of workmanship and their provenance linking them to the French poiluPaul Usunier.5 Usunier was called up in August 1914, assigned to the 47th Territorial Regiment, and sent to the Verdun area, where he served as an ambulance driver and transported supplies to troops at the front. He decorated these shell casings in 1916 between his ambulance and transport duties. The top of each is cut out with an elaborate design of thistles; the engraving depicts the imperial German eagle with its talons in France on the top shell, and a grim Crown Prince Wilhelm (1882–1951) sitting among piles of German bones and helmets after the German defeat at Verdun on the bottom one.

The design of the shell casing in Figure 8 in the shape of a woman’s head with a necklace including the Cross of Lorraine is tentatively attributed to the French artist André Derain, who at one point during the war “was reduced to decorating shell cases.”6 Derain served in the French Army in the Somme, at Verdun, and in the Vosges Mountains in Lorraine, where he worked behind the front lines repairing heavy artillery pieces and would have had access to machine tools to fashion this delicate piece. It is not signed, but the head is similar to portraits of Derain’s wife Alice and a number of art historians have agreed with the attribution.7

The massive scale of trench warfare on the Western Front often overshadows other fronts of the Great War, but campaigns were also fought in Italy, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, North and East Africa, and in Siberia and northern Russia, and soldiers in all of these places made trench art. Middle Eastern artisans engraved artillery shell casings or used the damescene technique in which narrow grooves were cut into the surface of a shell casing and then filled with silver or copper wire that was hammered flat into the surface to create elaborate designs and Arabic inscriptions (see Fig. 7). Some were also engraved with inscriptions in English to celebrate the British capture of Jerusalem in 1917 and the capture of Damascus in 1918.

In 1906 in Jerusalem the Latvian Jewish artist Boris Schatz (1866–1932) founded the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts (now the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design) to encourage the development of an original local art style combining Jewish motifs with European art nouveau principles.8 Closed by the Turkish Army in 1915, the school reopened after the war ended. Among the objects created by the students were German World War I shell casings decorated with traditional Jewish symbols and images, biblical themes, and views of the Holy Land. Some were acid-etched, and others featured designs inlaid with silver and copper (see Fig. 9).

Miniature models of military equipment were also popular creations for trench artists. The model of a 75mm field gun in Figure 2 was made by French poiluV. Nicaud and, unusual for trench art pieces, was signed by the maker. First used by the French in 1898, the French 75mm gun employed a revolutionary hydro-pneumatic recoil mechanism that kept the gun carriage in place during firing, allowing it to fire as many as fifteen rounds a minute to a maximum range of five miles. It was such a successful piece of equipment that the United States Army adopted it by 1918.

Early in the war the British, working in utmost secrecy, began to develop their own weapon—a motorized armored fighting vehicle with the code name “tank.” Its debut in September 1916 was a disaster when the heavy machinery floundered in the deep mud of the Western Front. In drier weather in 1917, tanks were successfully used against the Germans at the Battle of Cambrai. The British Mark series of tanks are the most common trench art models (see Fig. 14).

Airplanes also made their debut as military weapons during World War I. The French Army established an Aéronautique Militaire branch in 1910, and at the beginning of the war had a squadron of 132 planes. The Germans immediately realized the potential of aerial warfare and began an accelerated program to develop and produce their own military airplanes. Trench art models of both Allied and German planes were made with rifle cartridge fuselages and pieces of scrap brass. The most elegant airplane of the war was undoubtedly the German Taube or “Dove” (see Fig. 5).

Germany led the field in developing submarines, which they used mainly to sink ships carrying troops and supplies to the Allies. Submarines are rare among trench art models. The one in Figure 3 is made from two rifle cartridges and bullets and pieces of scrap brass and copper.

Zeppelins, another German innovation, made several bombing raids over Great Britain, during which some were shot down by British airplanes or by antiaircraft fire from the ground. Soldiers who reached the wreckage first were assigned to guard it from local curiosity seekers, but they often salvaged pieces of the aluminum framework for themselves to work into small souvenirs.9 Remains of several airships were donated to the British Red Cross, the London and North Western Railway, and other charities where they were fashioned into similar souvenirs for sale to the public to benefit wounded soldiers.  Small boxes, trays, picture frames (see Fig. 4), letter openers, lighters (see Fig. 1), and matchbox covers (see Fig. 17) were also made from battlefield debris. Salvaged pieces of broken wooden airplane propellers, for example, were ideal for making picture frames (see Fig. 15), clocks, and small boxes.

Soldiers and sailors also used their mess kits, canteens, helmets, and other military equipment as canvases for trench art. Made from aluminum, a soft metal that could be easily worked, mess kits and canteens were frequently engraved with records of a soldier’s service, patriotic and other images, or merely with personal details to establish ownership. The unusual mess kit lid in Figure 16 was pierced with an elaborate design incorporating the name of A. E. F. Engineer Sergeant First Class William A. Link. It was probably created on a homeward bound ship after the war, because the piercings would have rendered it useless for its original purpose. German canteens and mess kits, also made from aluminum, were engraved by Allied soldiers who found them on battlefields near their trenches or took them from fallen German soldiers.

Helmets were sometimes painted with unit insignia during the war to allow soldiers to stay together in the heat of battle. Most painted helmets, however, particularly the more elaborate examples decorated with patriotic designs or in imitation of German camouflage, were made after the war, either while soldiers were waiting for transport ships to take them home or on board ship. The example in Figure 6, known as a memory helmet, is painted on the top with a map of the Western Front. The rim is painted with the soldier’s name, “H. G. Booth,” his unit “110th Trench Mortar Battery,” and “A.E.F. France 1918.19.”

Among the most poignant souvenirs of the Great War are the objects created by civilian internees and prisoners of war held at camps across Europe and the Middle East. The authorities at some camps established handicraft workshops to provide an opportunity for confined individuals to relieve the boredom of prison life by making objects to send home to their families or to sell to the public and to soldiers billeted nearby in order to supplement their food rations. Internees from the British First Royal Naval Brigade held in Groningen, in the neutral Netherlands, for example, created wooden souvenir picture frames and boxes that were sold at major department stores in London. Camp administrators on the Isle of Man organized local craft shows to sell handicrafts made by the German civilians interned there and also distributed a variety of pieces for sale through charitable organizations such as the British Society of Friends Emergency Committee and the Prisoners of War Relief Committee.10 Among the most beautiful pieces are the vases carved from soupbones salvaged by internees from camp kitchens (see Fig. 13).

In the Middle East, thousands of Turkish soldiers captured by the British and the Australians developed a souvenir trade in crocheted beadwork snakes and other pieces made with Bohemian glass beads. The beads were supplied by the camp authorities, and the objects were sold to soldiers billeted nearby. Beadwork snakes are the best known of these souvenirs, and many were purchased by British soldiers to take home as toys for their children. The snakes range in length from thirteen inches to eighteen feet, and many bear inscriptions with variations of “Turkish prisoners” and dates from 1915 to 1919. The snake in Figure 19 remained until recently in the family of the British soldier Maurice Kettlewell, who served at Salonika (Thessaloníki), Greece, as the cook in a Turkish prisoner-of-war camp. It was given to Kettlewell by one of the prisoners in appreciation for his kindness, and remained one of his most treasured possessions.11 Dated 1915, it was probably made by a prisoner captured in the Gallipoli campaign. Some of the snakes hold beadwork lizards in their mouths, possibly symbolizing that the Turkish prisoners felt as helpless in the hands of their British captors as a lizard would in the mouth of a snake.

The stalemate on the Western Front during World War I produced a genre of interesting objects that record the battle experiences of common soldiers and, like war memoirs and poems, tell stories. The surviving pieces are a tangible and poignant connection to the war that was supposed to end all wars.

1 Paul M. Davis and Hubert K. Clay, History of Battery “C” 148th Field Artillery American Expeditionary Forces (Out West Press, Colorado Springs, Colo., 1919), p. 204. 

2 The most commonly decorated shell casings were created from the 37mm shells used by the French, German, and American armies; the 75mm artillery shells used by the French and the American armies; and the 77mm artillery shells used by the German Army. 

3 Estimates of the number of rounds fired in this battle range from almost two million to more than four million. William Barclay Parsons,The American Engineers in France (D. Appleton, New York, 1920), p. 264, gives the figure as four million. 

4 For photographs of tools and metal and paper patterns, see Patrice Warin, Artisanat de Tranchée de la Grande Guerre, vol. 2 (Ysec Ėditions, Louviers, France, 2005), pp. 66–68.

5 I am grateful to Paul Usunier’s grandson, Jacques Michel Usunier, for these shells and for the information about Paul Usunier’s war service. 

6 Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1963), p. 194. 

7 This shell casing was included in the exhibition 1914! la vanguardia y la Gran Guerra held at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid in 2008. The museum and the art historians who attended the conference thought the attribution to Derain was credible, as is recorded in a letter to the author from Javier Arnaldo, January 23, 2009. I also discussed the shell casing in my lecture at the first international trench art conference, “Collecting War: Trench Art and Souvenirs Manufacture and Representation,” Ypres, Belgium, April 2009, where the attribution was not questioned. 

8 See Bezalel 1906–1929 (Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1983). 

9 Jane A. Kimball, Trench Art: An Illustrated History (Silverpenny Press, Davis, Calif., 2004), pp. 144–146. 

10 See Leslie Baily, Craftsman and Quaker: The Story of James T. Baily 1876–1957 (George Allen and Unwin, London, 1959); St. Stephen’s House: Friends Emergency Work in England 1914–1920, ed. Anna Thomas Braithwaite et al. (Emergency Committee for the Assistance of Germans, Austrians and Hungarians in Distress, London, 1920); and Living with the Wire: Civilian Internment in the Isle of Man during the Two World Wars, ed. Yvonne M. Cresswell (Manx National Heritage, Douglas, Isle of Man, 1994). 

11 I am grateful to Connie Olson, daughter of Maurice Kettlewell, for this rare snake and for her information on her father’s war service.

JANE A. KIMBALL is the author of Trench Art: An Illustrated History (2004), a comprehensive history of the subject.

Click here to read a related interview with artillery art expert and collector Raymond D. White.