By Jessica Leigh Brown
Thousands of miles from home, servicemen and women inevitably dream of families, cherished memories and hopes for the future. Out of this longing for something beautiful in the midst of a conflict, trench art was born. Named for the infamous trenches of World War I, the trench art tradition stretches back at least to the Napoleonic Wars of 18th century Europe – although it didn’t carry the moniker during earlier conflicts – and continues today.
What is Trench Art?
Paul Cornish, senior curator at the Imperial War Museums in London, U.K., defines trench art as “a genre of folk art comprised of items created in wartime, or from war material, and made by servicemen and women or by civilians.” Cornish notes that while trench art can be found relating to almost any war in history, it is associated most directly with World War I. “There would have been a whole raft of different motivations for creating trench art,” says Cornish. “Some of the makers would have been responding to creative urges, but I would imagine that the chief one was a desire to bring home a souvenir of an intense and life-changing experience.”
Author and professor Nicholas Saunders agrees that there are many reasons why soldiers or prisoners of war chose to create art, including boredom, the need for extra money and the presence of lots of raw material. “I think it flourished during World War I because there were so many men stuck together in one place for so long with all this material about and lots of free time,” Saunders says. “Only a small percentage of their time was spent fighting – and, of course, they had a captive market for selling their art.”
A Range of Materials
The ready availability of materials might have spearheaded the growing interest in trench art creation, according to Cornish. “The war was an industrial conflict which created a welter of scrap material suitable for working into trench art,” he says. “And armies now included large bodies of engineer and service-corps troops who had access to workshops and tools.”
With so much shooting going on, empty artillery shell casings abounded in the trenches of Europe – and many of them became works of art. “Objects created from brass are the most commonly seen today,” says Cornish. “This is because it was readily available (in the form of spent shell and cartridge cases) and because it is durable.” Some trench art creators were skilled artists, while others were amateurs, but Saunders says the resulting art is always anthropologically interesting.
Artists created a range of objects from the empty shells, including ashtrays, vases and pipe stands. Some used tools to puncture the brass and create patterns or words, while others heated and twisted the metal into different shapes. Often, a soldier would write the name of a battle, battalion or their home country somewhere on the piece, creating a memento.
In addition to the brass shell casings, trench artists also used scrap aluminum from airplanes or copper from the driving bands of shells. “They have also survived well and frequently appear in combination,” says Cornish.
Among the least common examples of trench art are those created from fragile materials. “Pieces created from organic material, such as leaves and tree bark, are quite rare,” Cornish says. “However, rarity is a hard thing to assess, as I have seen many examples of trench art which could claim to be unique.” Trench art pieces made by the Chinese Labour Corps who were on Western Front from 1917-1922/23 are also extremely difficult to find, Saunders notes.
Trench Art in World War II
Most people think of the First World War when considering trench art, but WWII also saw its fair share. Although servicemen and women throughout the world made trench art during the Second World War, the U.S. Seabees serving in the Pacific carried a special penchant for creative arts.“Because their jobs were related to construction, they had access to whole toolkits that someone in the infantry or air core didn’t have – and the skills to use them,” says Kimberlyn Crowell, senior curator at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, California, home to a large collection of WWII trench art. “They had whole metal working workshops, for example.”
The average Seabee was in his late 1920s or 1930s, creating a possible link to the trench art of WWI. “Because they were older than the soldier or sailor, many had served in World War I and may have been exposed to that form of trench art, but this is purely speculation on my part,” Crowell says. Whether or not they brought past experience to their creations, Seabees made trench art for much the same reasons their earlier counterparts did: To commemorate a battle, create a gift for a loved one, trade with other servicemen or natives or combat boredom.
Shell casings remained a common medium for trench art in World War II. “The most common type of trench art in our collection is jewelry,” Crowell says. “We have bracelets, earrings, necklaces, watchbands, brooches and other accessories made from shell casings, coins, aircraft aluminum and Plexiglas, bone, wood, seeds and seashells – to name just a few.”
Rare forms of Seabee trench art include pieces made from coconut shells and other locally sourced materials. “They were very interested in what the native cultures were using and how they made things,” Crowell says. “Those serving in the Pacific islands used palm leaves to weave baskets, and Seabees in Alaska carved baleen and ivory, since that’s what the natives were using.”
Collecting Trench Art
Those interested in collecting trench art will have little difficulty finding it, according to Cornish. “Trench art seldom finds its way into the hands of the big auction houses or fine art dealers,” he says. “Antique and bric-a-brac shops or Brocantes and flea markets in continental Europe will usually have plenty on offer. Small local auctioneers frequently feature examples in their sales.”
However, Cornish warns collectors to keep a sharp eye for fakes. “The creation of a sort of pseudo-trench art has continued in France and Belgium since the 1920s,” he says. “It’s always worth analyzing a piece to see if any parts look mass-produced or made of a material unlikely to be found at the wartime front. If shell or cartridge cases are involved, they are likely to have a helpful date stamped on their base.”
Standard prices for trench art pieces vary widely depending on the place of sale. “A good quality World War I shell case can be picked up for $20-$35 (£10-£20 ) in a car boot sale but might be $75-$150 (£50-£100) in a specialist militaria shop or website,” Saunders says. “Miniature airplanes made of bullets and other materials are very expensive because it’s a very niche market with lots of collectors chasing a very few examples.”
Longtime trench art collector John Ford enjoys the anthropological aspect of his hobby. “At one time many of these pieces had a personal connection to a lost relative,” Ford says. “Over the generations that meaning has faded as family members died off. These objects that once had a tangible and poignant meaning have lost that meaning and to me and other collectors, they are just very cool pieces of art.”
Ford notes that trench art collecting is an affordable hobby for those with an interest in military history. “A few pieces are quite valuable, but most are only worth a few hundred dollars at best,” he says. “I personally have paid as little as $14 and as much as $600, but the really nice pieces don’t come up very often.”
• Paul Cornish, Senior Curator,
Imperial War Museums, London, U.K.
• Kimberlyn Crowell, Senior Curator,
US Navy Seabee Museum, Naval Base Ventura County
Bldg. 100, Port Hueneme, CA 93043
• John Ford, trench art collector, http://www.trenchart.net
• Nicholas Saunders, professor and author, Bristol, U.K.
• Claire Luisi, trench art collector,
Jessica Leigh Brown is a freelance writer based in Clinton, Tenn. Her work has appeared in a number of regional and national publications, including Tennessee Archways, Flea Market Décor, Tennessee Home & Farm, and Tourist Attractions & Parks. Find her on the web at www.jessicaleighbrown.com.