National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : Military History & Army War Museum

Trench Art

NZ Army Museum Artefacts: Trench Art

By Chris Rapley, Assistant Curator Social History & Accoutrements

Trench Art - Artillery Shell Candle HolderThe National Army Museum has a multitude of interesting military artefacts and collections, including a fascinating collection known as “Trench Art”. Trench Art is a difficult art form to define, but loosely speaking it refers to pieces of art made by soldiers, prisoners of war or civilians during time of conflict, often using war material. Pieces of Trench Art can cover many kinds of different materials, such as objects made from bullets or embroidered cloths created by recuperating soldiers.

Trench Art can also have a multitude of meanings or origins, for example a carving made by a Prisoner of War as a way to fight boredom or a sculptured piece of shrapnel signifying a lucky escape for a soldier in the front line.

The art form received its name from World War I, a conflict characterised by trench warfare, but Trench Art actually seems to have been around since the beginning of conflict and it continues today in current war zones.

What makes Trench Art so special is that it gives us a close insight into the everyday life of soldiers and people affected by war; it can show us what was important to them or how they sought to cope with the horrors they had to endure. Pieces of Trench Art allow us a glimpse into the minds of the people at the time, rather than being held at arms length by a memorial or an oil painting.

A short look around the Army Museum will reveal numerous pieces of Trench Art, sometimes shown as parts of greater displays. Next time you are at the Museum when you walk through our New Zealand Wars and Anglo-Boer War displays be sure to have a close look at the carved rifle butts to admire the skill and artistry on display.

In the Western Front exhibit at the Army Museum there is an entire case dedicated to Trench Art. One very eye-catching piece is a brass artillery shell that has been intricately cut to make a candle holder for religious services. There is also a small milk jug that was made from the remains of the British tank that made the deepest advance at Polygon Wood, near Passchendaele.

Trench Art - HelicopterCountless other displays throughout the Museum hold other treasures of Trench Art, including some striking pieces in the Prisoner of War exhibition and the display on Featherston Camp, which shows pieces made by Japanese Prisoners of War.

Another interesting object on display at the Museum is a helicopter made by a New Zealand soldier from material associated with the M16 rifle while serving in Vietnam during 1972.

Discover the stories behind other fascinating NZ army memorabilia and military artefacts on display and in the archives at the National Army Museum.