Personal Treasures: WWI Trench Art
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 open a window to the past. 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 online exhibition showcases a selection of them. Come explore to find out who made trench and why, where they made it and from what materials.
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.More
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.
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.
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.
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.More
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.
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.
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.
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.More
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.More
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.
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.
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.