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Trench Art

Trench Art

The term ‘trench art’ refers to any decorative, and sometimes functional, items made from the detritus of war. Common pieces were ashtrays, matchbox holders, vases and letter knives, but embroidered items such as cushions, handkerchiefs and decorated postcards were also made. Often created from uniform fragments, re-purposed bullets, spent shell cases and copper shell bands, trench art items were made by both soldiers and civilians and have been produced in all theatres of war.

Trench art as a term is somewhat misleading as, while some items were indeed made during quiet times in the trenches, most were created well behind the lines. Many items were produced by convalescing soldiers in hospitals, prisoners of war in camps and in workshops by civilians who were hoping to make a bit of money out of the chaos of war.

Trench Art
BRCRM: 1999.8.1.i – An embroidered cushion, dating from the Boer War, made by Pte James Whittingham (4190) of the 2nd Battalion, South Wales Borderers. Pte Whittingham, who joined the army in 1887 aged 18, embroidered the message “From Jim to Bella.”

During the First World War, trench art reached its peak, in both production and popularity, and many of the items we see today date from this period. Soldiers either made pieces, or bought them, to send home to family or to keep as souvenirs of a particular place, battle or time. As the popularity of trench art increased, soldiers could buy templates to stamp designs on to shell cases, or embroidery kits for making postcards. Many embroidered items were produced as a form of therapy for those wounded in battle, improving dexterity and relieving boredom during hospital stays.

Immediately after the First World War, battlefield visits became popular, particularly for those who had lost loved ones, and this boosted the trade in war souvenirs. Relatives and, in some cases, the soldiers themselves, could buy pieces of trench art to take home from such visits.

Even today, original First World War shells, bullets and cartridges are still made into souvenirs in France and Belgium and sold to visitors to the battlefields and cemeteries.

Another, perhaps surprising, source of trench art was the department stores. Throughout the 1920s many offered to turn war souvenirs brought home by soldiers, such as bullets and shell heads, into decorative items such as wooden-based paperweights. If the soldier had no souvenir of his own, one could be provided at an extra cost.

Second World War trench art was easier to produce, thanks to technological advancement and improved tools, and items were often more intricate and detailed. Typical pieces included model aeroplanes, cigarette lighters (some shaped like tanks, U-boats or grenades) and ashtrays. However, these are not as popular among collectors as those from the First World War.

Trench Art
First World War jug made from a shell case, 1917

An interesting line of thought as to what can be considered trench art includes the Victoria Cross medal. Each individual cross is indeed made from the detritus of war.

The Victoria Cross was first awarded, retrospectively, just after the Crimean War (1854-1855) and each one was, and still is, made from the bronze Russian cannons the British captured at Sebastapol. The guns were melted down and the bronze ingots are kept by the Ministry of Defence. When a VC is awarded, a rough cast of the cross is made from this bronze and then sent to Hancocks Jewellers of London to be hand finished. The one remaining original ingot is estimated to be enough for a further 80 medals.

Can the VC be considered trench art? Let us know what you think…

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