Every object tells a story, and among the most powerful are those associated with war. From a bullet to a tank, from a souvenir fragment of battlefield debris to a miniature token of affection, all are artefacts of conflict. Each bears witness to the transformation of matter through the agency of destruction. Unpredictable in shape, and often intensely personal, war objects take various paths through time and space, acquire and then shed meanings, and play different roles in the lives of those with whom they collide. Their sensual, emotional, psychological, practical, and symbolic social lives can be endlessly reconfigured, revalued, and re-presented through new and previously unimaginable liaisons. War objects can be striking, disturbing, and uplifting, inviting us to look beyond the physical and consider the hybrid and constantly renegotiated relationships between objects and people. They link the living with the dead in an ever-changing relationship between past and present, and as such their study is a distinctive kind of anthropological archaeology.
Arguably, the most potent and diverse of such objects belong to a category known as ‘trench art’ – a term bequeathed by the First World War and the focus of this article, though in fact a concept as old as civilisation itself. A famous ancient example dates to 479 BC, when the Greeks defeated the Persians at the Battle of Plataea and melted down their bronze armour to forge a victory monument known as the Serpent Column – set up at Delphi, though now on display in Istanbul. Its ‘social life’ spans more than two millennia, three religions – the many gods of ancient Greece, Christianity, and Islam – and momentous cultural upheavals.
Trench art is a distinctive and ‘attention-grabbing’ kind of art, not least because it often incorporates the agents of death, mutilation, and destruction directly. In this way, it embodies the relationships between human beings and the things they make, use, and recycle – in the physical, spiritual, and imaginary worlds they construct and inhabit. It was, until recently, ignored by academia, and all but invisible in public consciousness.
From the First and Second World Wars to Korea, Vietnam, and beyond, trench art can be defined as any item made by soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilians, from war matériel directly or any other material, as long as it and they are connected in time and space with armed conflict or its consequences. Trench art is war art, but in its sensuous and tactile qualities, and its memory-evoking power, it is far more than that, because it can simultaneously embody the experiences of its makers and transform their pre-war selves. In 1914, the Grand Duchess of Baden presented wounded German soldiers with the bullets taken from their bodies and then set in silver mountings. Life and death experiences were incorporated in these previously lethal objects and transformed into talismanic bodily adornment that could reshape a soldier’s identity when worn in public. Soon afterwards, similar examples were being made commercially by German jewellers. That such items could be bought and worn by those who had not suffered the trauma of battle shows how complex these small objects can be – near-death experiences become fashionable, patriotic civilian jewellery, and perhaps for some they are even used to build a false identity of military bravery and endurance they never had.
Every one of the millions of trench-art items made during 20th-century wars has a human story sealed within it. Many can be regarded as three-dimensional voices from the battlefields – a non-literary, handmade record of what ordinary soldiers saw and felt, first as they fought for comrades and country, sometimes as prisoners of war or recuperating war wounded, and then in the post-war period. Yet, while the majority of these stories are lost to us, building a cultural biography of an item is sometimes possible. One example is the so-called ‘Versavel Windmill’, made in 1917 by Jules and Camiel Versavel, two brothers from Passchendaele in Belgian Flanders; they used a German artillery shell, French, Belgian, and British rifle cartridges, and copper drive-bands from artillery shells collected from the battlefield by their teenage nephew Gabriel. I interviewed Gabriel in 2002, when he was 100, and he told me how the miniature windmill was created to commemorate his town’s original, which had been destroyed by artillery bombardment. The trench-art version, he said, kept alive the memory of the original throughout the war and intriguingly became part of the civic paraphernalia at Passchendaele’s post-war council meetings.
Quite different, but equally rare and insightful, is the case of the Australian First World War Sapper Stanley Keith Pearl, whose story and objects are joined together in the detailed notes he kept on every item of trench art he made on the Western Front between 1916 and 1919. These notes give us detailed glimpses into Pearl’s creative process. In the description of his trench-art clock, he recorded that it was:
Made at Ypres in March 1918. The case was made from two 4.5-inch shell-cases picked up on Christmas Day 1917… at Le Bizet. The foot support is a clip of an 18-pounder shell. The arms are detonator wells of rifle-grenades and nose-caps. The hands are from a gun-cotton case, while the alarm cover is an American-made 18-pounder nose-cap with a ‘whizz-bang’ driving band. The Rising Sun is the badge of a mate killed at Noreuil, while a button from the maker’s greatcoat and a German bullet surmount the whole.
This precious and visceral insight takes us on a journey around some of the Western Front’s most dangerous places, mentions Britain, France, Germany, and the USA, and includes the death of a friend whose badge gives the clock a tick-tock memorial dimension. In the notes he made concerning another piece, his ‘Chrysanthemum Vase’, Pearl captured another aspect. It was, he wrote,
Made at Thy-le-Château from a French 75mm shell-case and embellished with the Royal Artillery badge and a French artillery button. The shell-case was souvenired from a French battery south of Villers-Bretonneux, while the handles are 1-inch copper steam-pipes split down and flattened out. The latter were purloined from a German locomotive which formed part of the Armistice indemnity and were removed at night with a hacksaw in spite of a guard.
This remarkable description seems to straddle the divide between the war and the Armistice of 11 November 1918, showing how the trench-art object captures the momentous transition from war to peace in three-dimensional form. Despite this and other equally rare accounts by Pearl, very little is known of the man himself – not even a photograph can be traced. Sapper Pearl today is remembered because of his annotated collection of trench art at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The objects he crafted in war have remade him a century later, rescuing him from the oblivion into which so many soldiers have disappeared during the last hundred years.
The majority of First World War trench-art pieces, however, are anonymous, with no recorded memories. Nevertheless, they can still offer glimpses into the thoughts and emotions of their makers. At the battleground of Verdun in 1916, French soldiers huddled in their trenches and delicately engraved bracelets from the copper driving bands of artillery shells for their wives and sweethearts. Finger-rings for fiancées were carved from German aluminium fuse-caps, and pen-caps for children from spent rifle cartridges. These items may have begun life weeks before in another place but could be endlessly elaborated to pass the time – or work on them could be terminated by a sniper’s bullet.
While metal trench-art captures the zeitgeist of the First World War, wood, textiles, bone, stone, and even leaves were also used. Wood was readily available and easily worked, and so a favourite among soldiers. Boxes for tobacco, cigarettes, matches, or mementoes are well known, but it is walking sticks (also called ‘trench canes’) that often carry the most intriguing stories. These items were a feature of pre-war civilian life, though are hardly seen today apart from with countryside walkers, ramblers, the elderly, and others looking for some support while walking. During the war, they were a complex kind of trench art, used by the wounded, and often elaborately engraved, surmounted by a carved head of a soldier or a general or famous person such as King George V. They were made by ordinary soldiers, as well as officers, both German and Allied, sometimes to sell or keep as souvenirs of their war service.
One remarkable example only relatively recently came to light after being kept for almost 100 years by the family of French infantryman Claude Burloux. Carved in 1917, it is a three-dimensional record of Burloux’s war experiences, his thoughts, and his imaginings. At various points on the cane he carved people, events, and text. The designs show a German aeroplane that had been shot down, a French infantryman greeting a woman from Alsace by caressing her cheek while she holds a bouquet of flowers, and a phrase, ‘European and worldwide carnage’. Elsewhere, he shows a struggle between a French soldier and a German one, with both wielding blades in the attempt to kill one another. He later engraved ‘Vive la France’ under a carved image of Joan of Arc. Burloux survived the war, and his descendants treasured the trench cane until 2002, when it was donated to the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne.
Sometimes, trench art tells forgotten stories about the First World War, helping to reinstate them in history and popular memory. Such was the case with the little-known Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), recruited by the British and French for labouring duties along the Western Front from 1917 to 1921. They soon began making their own highly distinctive trench art – ‘flower vases’ made from artillery shell-cases, stunningly decorated with dragons and birds singing in blossom trees and occasionally Chinese calligraphy as well. Not for the CLC the usual European-style Art Nouveau flowers, buildings, and war scenes, but rather romanticised evocations of traditional Chinese culture, revealing how they made trench art affirming their own, not European identity, even if most examples were made for sale to battlefield visitors and those involved with the post-war clearance of the battlefields. Sometimes these flower vases were spectacular, made by master craftsmen, as with the example shown on p.46, which itself has an intriguing biography. Probably bought in Belgian Flanders by a British battlefield tourist or pilgrim between 1919 and 1921, it was taken back to southern England and cherished enough to be chromed in the late 1920s or early 1930s, when chrome was part of the fashion for Art Deco. Indeed, trench art, and the war more generally, was a powerful influence on post-war art and design and even fashion.
The dawn of the 21st century has seen trench art providing new and rich sources of information about conflict, especially the First World War. It gives us unique insights into the daily lives and experiences of soldiers in wartime, and, along with their relatives, during the long and emotionally difficult aftermath of conflict as well. These objects strip bare the realities of fighting, surviving, and commemorating. In the years following the war, bereaved parents, widows, and fatherless children visited the old battlefields and often returned home with trench-art souvenirs to place on the mantelpiece or in the hallway. They became raw emotional substitutes for husbands and fathers who never returned, but whose memory was only ever a glance away. For many war widows, who had patriotically made artillery shells in munitions factories during the war, it could be painfully ironic, because they often bought similar but now empty shell-cases decorated as trench-art souvenirs and carried them home. And, to help with their grief, many cleaned and polished metal trench-art obsessively, translating household chores into sacred acts of remembrance.
The passage of time has revealed changing attitudes towards trench art. During and just after the First World War, trench art was commonplace, but afterwards its popularity faded, as the original makers and owners passed away. It was made also during the Second World War and later conflicts, but, by the 1990s, it was mainly known only to specialist collectors, museum curators, and militaria shops. The idea that First World War examples – always the most numerous – were not simply the kitsch or rubbish or occasional souvenir of a distant war but were in fact informative three-dimensional narratives of conflict only took hold in the late 1990s.
Today, attitudes towards trench art have changed fundamentally, and on a global scale. Exhibitions and publications that deal with these objects, often from many different 20th-century conflicts and from a variety of perspectives, have flourished. In 1997, there was one book in Finnish on the topic, today there are approaching 30, and in a diversity of languages, alongside countless popular and academic articles. Trench art has re-entered the realm of art, has had its museum life rejuvenated, and is now a well-known example of war-related material culture in universities around the world. And yet, it can still be found in many households – a truly democratic kind of art with deep-rooted significance, and secret stories that are only now being told.
Nicholas J Saunders (2012) Trench Art: a brief history and guide, Pen & Sword (2nd edition).
Nicholas J Saunders (2020) Trench Art: materialities and memories of war, Routledge (originally published by Berg, 2003).