THE LOST WORLDS OF THE GREAT WAR
Nicholas J. Saunders
As the 20th century slips from view, so the last survivors of the First World War pass away. The momentous events which shaped their lives and the modern world now stand at the furthest edge of living memory. They have become history, living on mainly in books, photographs, and the flickering black-and-white images of early film. Yet there is another legacy, one which has many stories to tell, and which, ironically, is all around us. It has remained invisible in plain view for the best part of a century. 'Trench Art' is the common though misleading name given to 3-D objects of metal, cloth, wood and bone, made by soldiers and civilians alike from time immemorial, but best known from the 19th and 20th centuries. During the Great War of 1914-18 and its aftermath, these items were familiar to every soldier and family, yet since 1945 have slipped through the net of history - though not the world of military collectibles! Every day, it is bought and sold by dealers, collectors, museums, and the curious in car boot sales, flea markets, militaria fairs, and in cyberspace over the Internet. While not yet rare, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find.
My interest in trench art began while researching the wartime service of my grandfathers, both of whom had fought in the First World War and survived, though not without scars. One had seen action in the 2nd Battalion King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), the other in 1/5th Battalion South Lancashire Regiment. Remembering a strange piece of metal I had inherited - a decorated brass matchbox cover - I became intrigued, and subsequently spent four years investigating these strange objects funded by the British Academy in London. Today, many articles and several books later, I have come to realise how important these objects were and still are. Here I would like to share a handful of my findings and thoughts.
The photograph shows a cigarette Case made from scrap brass and decorated with the crest of The King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), My Grandfather's Regiment.
What is Trench Art ?
Trench Art is full of contradictions. The term is as evocative as it is misleading, yet the objects it describes are a unique kind of art, rich in symbolism and irony. Its astonishing variety is a testament to human skills and fortitude under the pressures of war. Perhaps for these reasons, it often seems as if every collector, dealer, and museum curator has their own definition of what is or is not trench art. One important result of my research has been to show that trench art is more than a name, it is a concept, and thus not restricted to the Great War whose trenches bequeathed its name. To make sense of millions of objects, each one unique, I have adopted a deliberately broad 'working definition': trench art is
'any object made by any person from any material, as long as it and they are associated in time or space with armed conflict or its consequences.' This may appear too wide for some tastes, but there are good historical reasons for this as I will explain.
Trench art is more than the junk of war. After handling, photographing, and studying thousands of pieces, it has become clear to me that it is possible to identify a number of types, each of which tells a story about how and when they were made and probably who made them and why? If there is a secret to understanding Great War trench art it is to avoid grouping together objects which look the same. This produces nothing other than lists of, say, trench art ashtrays, decorated shells
( the photograph on the left shows an art nouveau style trench art shell case), or embroidered postcards. Far more useful is to look at who made what, how, when, and why? This allows trench art to be dragged into history. In other words, it is possible to explore the human and cultural dimensions of the genre.
Kinds of Trench Art
There are three main kinds of Great War trench art, though it is possible to identify many sub-categories. Category 1 was made by soldiers between 1914-1930 in the front-line, rear areas, POW camps, and while serving as part of the army of occupation in the Rhine land (1919-1930). Items made between 1914-1919 are, perhaps surprisingly, the smallest category quantitatively speaking, though show the greatest variety of shapes and forms. Many soldiers carved in chalk, wood, or bone in the trenches( the photograph shows a German POW carved bone from Stobbs POW camp) , and also made items out of metal. Letters sent
home tell how "The lads in the trenches while away the flat time by fashioning rings, crosses, and pendants out of bullets and the softer parts of shells.'. In the Imperial War Museum, is an account of a British soldier who 'bought a transfer from a Belgian soldier for 5 woodbines ... then transferred the design to the shell with a bent nail ...'. Mainly, however, the more sophisticated pieces were made in safer rear areas by blacksmiths, the Royal Engineers, and service personnel of various regiments. Many were produced 'on spec', while others were made to order.
Many trench art makers created their works with personal and spiritual intent, the objects embodying their life and death experiences. The work of Sapper S.K. Pearl of the Australian 5th Field Company Engineers gives a glimpse of the visceral stories now mainly lost. In making a trench art clock ( the photograph on the left is one made from wooden propeller blades) he tells how it was made in
Ypres in Belgium in March 1918, how the base was made of two 4.5 inch howitzer shell cases picked up at Le Bizet (near Armentières) on Christmas Day 1917, how the arms are detonator wells of rifle-grenades and nose-caps, the hands coming from a gun-cotton case, the 'Rising Sun' badge from a mate killed at Noreuil, and a button coming from his own greatcoat. Typical examples of category 1 items include; finger rings, pens, letter-openers, cigarette lighters and matchbox covers made from bullets and scrap metal; decorated artillery shell cases; tobacco boxes and cigarette cases of wood and metal; military caps made from the base of shells; miscellaneous objects carved from wood, bone, stone and chalk; miscellaneous embroidered and beaded objects, such as postcards, handkerchiefs, beadwork snakes, and decorative heart-shaped cushions.
Category 2 items were made by civilians (often refugees) over twenty-four years, between 1914-1939, and tended to be more ornamental than functional. It is divided into two important sub-categories 2a and 2b. In both, often identical items were made by the same people with the same techniques. However, except where a piece had an inscription which implied a finished war, the difference lay not in materials or shapes, but in the changing circumstances of manufacture and sale associated with the move from war to peace. Sub-category 2a items were sold to Allied and German soldiers during the war, while sub-category 2b was sold to war widows,pilgrims, and battlefield tourists between 1919 and 1939. Clearly, each would possess very different meanings for the maker and buyer despite often being visually the same.
Typical category 2 items include: intricately shaped and engraved brass shell cases, inscribed with the name of a town, a date, and such tags as 'Souvenir of the Great War'; ashtrays made from or decorated with shell cases and bullet cartridges, usually more elaborate than category 1; letter openers, often more elaborate than category 1; bullet-crucifixes made of cartridges with Christ figures attached and small shells mounted on a bullet tripod.
Many 2b items became poignant souvenirs for the bereaved who bought them - often becoming the only material reminder of the dead. Finding their way back to homes in Britain and elsewhere, they were displayed in the hallway, on a living room mantelpiece or bedroom dresser, ensuring that memories of loved ones were only ever a glance away. Ironically, they were often polished obsessively, an act which probably had therapeutic effects for the bereaved, but which sometimes erased any original decoration or inscription. An extract from the Lancaster Guardian of 30 September 1916 (below) is a very poignant illustration of this type:
Alderson Irwin Private Kings Own Royal Lancaster Regiment killed in action 1916, age 21. Employed as a Messenger at the Post Office. Parents Mr and Mrs Alderson, East View, Hornby . His mother has a piece of shrapnel mounted on a gold pin, the shrapnel was extracted when he was wounded in May, 1915. His eldest brother is at the Remount depot, Leicester.
Category 3 objects were made by commercial companies probably mainly between 1918-1939. Sometimes called 'Mounted War Trophies', these items were composed of the raw materials of war brought back as souvenirs and mementoes by returning soldiers and typically mounted on a black ebonised base. Typical examples include: cups, clocks, lamps, and candlesticks made from shells and bullets; inkwells made from grenades and/or shrapnel; / simple mounted shrapnel fragments; 'table gongs' made from different size shell cases suspended from an ornate frame. Almost all were designed for the home and the peacetime lives of returning soldiers - the 'swords into ploughshares' philosophy - a phrase sometimes inscribed on the finished object.
A Final Comment
Even from this brief account, it can be seen that the infinite variety of Great War trench art has many stories to tell. These objects were part of a post-war world of memories and associations, where a war orphan would regard 'Daddy's shell' in quite a different way than an old soldier, a bereaved widow, or the returning refugees who made them in vast quantities along the old Western Front. Undoubtedly, in the diaries and letters of the old soldiers from Lancashire's many regiments are hidden yet more stories which reveal how human lives were represented by these strange and undervalued objects. Trench art is testimony to all who fought and suffered in the 'Great War for
Dr. Nicholas J. Saunders is in the Department of Anthropology, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, United Kingdom. Email:
His book, Trench Art: A Brief History and Guide, 1914-1939, was published by Leo Cooper/Pen and Sword Books in April 2001. Another book,
Trench Art, is published by Shire Books in October 2002.