Trench Art of the Great War

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.

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.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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