fbpx

World War One Trench Art

Little is known about this trench art projectile pendant, not even the name of the soldier it belonged to. It is a Turkish projectile that was removed from a soldier’s kneecap at Gallipoli. Afterwards he kept it as a souvenir and later had it converted into a pendant. (1980.6466) 

Trench art objects are holders of soldiers’ memories and reminders of the conflict they faced. Made out of recycled war refuse such as shell casings, spent bullets or whatever came to hand. They tell us things like where soldiers went and what their surroundings were like. They also give hints about soldiers’ thoughts and actions. Something as simple and functional as a matchbox cover can provide a map of a soldier’s movements while other, more decorative examples, show a desire to find and create beauty, to camouflage war in art.

The National Army Museum has a significant collection of World War One trench art. This blogpost showcases a selection of them. Come explore to find out who made trench and why, where they made it and from what materials.

1992.677 Beaded Snake, Trench Art, WWI

Turkish Beaded Snake

This beaded snake is 1.5 metres long and was brought back after World War One as a gift for a family member. It has the words souvenir and Turkish Prisoner 1917 woven into it. It was made by a prisoner of war and while he may have been Turkish, he also could have been a Kurd, Arab, Greek or Eastern European as they were all included in the Ottoman Empire during this time. (1992.677) 

Who Made Trench Art?

Although evocative, the term trench art can be quite confusing or misleading. 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. The civilian cottage industry in World War One trench art lasted from the beginning of the war, through the interwar years, to the beginning of World War Two.

Soldiers

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.

1998.532 Matchbox Holder, Trench Art, WWI

Civilians

A substantial cottage industry sprung up in war devastated areas where the leftovers of battles provided a useful resource material to local civilians. Sometimes it is very difficult to tell the difference between soldier-made and commercially produced civilian trench art. Some commercial souvenirs, like this crucifix, combined war material, such as these bullet casings, with factory-produced elements, like the Christ figure.

Prisoners of War

Producing trench art had a two-fold gain for prisoners of war. It helped fill in their large amounts of spare time while producing a tradable commodity which could help to improve their lives by swapping it for things like food or cigarettes. Prisoners of war could either make things on commission for people or produce things from available materials in hope of trading them later.

1980.6349 Grenade Ashtray, Trench Art, WWI

This ashtray is made out of a Mills 36M grenade. The cast iron ‘pineapple-style’ body of the grenade provides the bowl to collect the ash. A section has been cut away for the opening and the insides have been removed but the pin has been kept attached. (1980.6349) 

What is Trench Art Made From?

Trench art can be made of any number of things. Many objects were made out of the scraps created by war. This included ammunition shell cases, bullet casings, shrapnel, and pieces of destroyed buildings or downed planes. These materials would all have been readily available in the war zones to soldiers, their prisoners of war and to civilians still in the area. Some objects appear to have little to do with the war full stop. Turkish prisoners of war started a bustling business in objects made of glass beads which commemorated the war.

1993.1928 Ring, Trench Art, WWI

Doctor Steele’s Ring

This ring was made by French canonnier, Auguste Ollier. He gave it to Captain Henry Lionel Hughes Steele, a New Zealand doctor, as a thank you after Captain Steele operated on him at the front. The ring is made from aluminium and is in the shape of a serpent. (1993.1928)

Bullets1979.3983 Bullet Crucifix, Trench Art, WWI

Bullet casings were one of the most common objects used to create trench art. They were often used in objects like letter openers and religious crosses. In 1917 Princess Mary organised a small gift to be sent to all of the Allied men at the front. These came in small tins and included a pencil made out of a bullet casing.

This crucifix (right) is made from two French 8mm lebel cartridge cases with three German projectiles forming the cross at the top and a brass Christ figure mounted in the centre. The design and inclusion of the mass-produced Christ figure suggest that this is an example of a commercially produced piece of trench art. (1979.3983) 

Shell Cases

One of the most common types of trench art in the collection is shell case vases. Shell cases were meant to be gathered up and sent back for reloading but many never made it. They were a popular memento and sparked a substantial cottage industry.

This decorated Shell case was brought back from Europe by Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse, M Langston, at the end of the War. She commissioned it from Theobald Eilken who was at the British Field Hospital doing odd jobs as part of a German prisoner of war working party. The poem reads: “When the Golden Sun is sinking / And your mind from care is free / When of others you are thinking / Will you sometimes think of me?” It is a traditional poem that was used with the sweetheart pincushions soldiers made as part of their convalescence. (1993.1113.2) 

Glass Beads

Beaded snakes made by Turkish prisoners of war can be found in museum collections throughout the country but they also made all kinds of objects. Interestingly, the prisoners were not just Turkish as the Ottoman Empire included Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Greeks and other Eastern Europeans, any of which could have been the artist.

1987.1207.3 Beaded Lizard, Trench Art, WWI

This beaded lizard is a souvenir, brought home by a New Zealand nurse, during World War One. It was made by a prisoner of war from the Ottoman Empire. They created many glass bead objects to pass the time and trade for other goods. (1987.1207.3) 

Where did People Make Trench Art?

World War One inspired a prolific amount of trench art. It was the first major industrialised conflict and had a material and psychological intensity. This intensity encouraged the production of trench art. The objects could be used to entertain and fill in time but at the same time help to mitigate the experiences of the war. The National Army Museum has examples of trench art from many different sites of conflict.

WWI Map

Why did People Make Trench Art?

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 right throughout the interwar period.

1978.3113.1 Serviette Ring

Serviette Ring from Armentieres

Serviette rings are a popular type of trench art. They tend to be a simply designed circle of recycled brass with either a coat of arms and location, like this example, or a corps badge. This serviette ring was made in France and brought back as a gift to the soldier’s young sister. (1978.3113.1) 

Commemoration

Many trench art objects commemorate different places or battles. In this way soldiers could store their memories in an object to come back and think about it at a later date or to share with friends and family a little of the experiences they had, using the object to help them tell the story.

1980.5826 Model Plane, Trench Art, WWI

The Red Baron’s Plane

This is a model of an Albatros biplane flown by the Red Baron, German pilot Manfred von Richthofen, during World War One. Richthofen is credited with downing 80 Allied planes, but with a level of chivalry which, when he was finally shot down himself, earned him a funeral with full military honours, conducted by the Australians. He did not receive the name Red Baron until after the War finished. During WWI the French named him Le Diable Rouge which translates as The Red Devil and is written on the stand. Richthofen flew several variants of Albatros biplanes during 1916 and 1917 before he received his iconic red Fokker triplane. (1980.5826) 

Souvenirs

Many New Zealand soldiers set off overseas on what they believed to be a great adventure and they collected trench art souvenirs to show those back home where they had been. After the war many people who had lost loved ones travelled to the battle sites and purchased souvenirs to take home.

1982.666 Souvenir of Egypt Embroidered Cloth, QAMR, WWI

QAMR Embroidered Cloth

Many soldiers brought home cloths similar to this one. They had them made in Egypt, often with a mixture of iconic images and corps crests. This one is machine embroidered in chain stitch and features a Queen Alexandra’s Mounted Rifles crest and is personalised with the words “To My Dear Mother”. (1982.666)

Entertainment

Soldiers spent a lot of time waiting for orders and so portable ways to entertain themselves was an important part of their life. Some soldiers entertained themselves with music while others found makeshift gambling much more fun.

1986.1459 Crown and Anchor Board, WWI

Crown and Anchor Board

Gambling was a very popular pastime during World War One. This board appears to have been cut from a corner of groundsheet, or other waterproofed material, and the symbols hand drawn. Three crown and anchor dice are required to play. Little is known of its origins except a note that was added when it was donated describing how it was made in the warzone and that a lot of money passed over it. (1986.1459)