Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Transforming the Debris of War: Trench Art of World War I

Soldiers resting on a pile of shell cases after the
Battle of Passchendaele, September 1917
Imperial War Museums 
© IWM (Q 2915)
The technological developments of the late 19th and early 20th century meant that World War I was a new kind of warfare. Machine guns, mortars, and other field artillery vastly increased the range of munitions fire, but also discouraged troop movements. Instead, opposing armies dug into protective trenches from which they could fire at each other, with occasional attempts to gain ground by going “over the top.” The constant noise of artillery, and the massive numbers of shell cases and other debris left behind by this type of warfare, had a profound effect on the men in the trenches. One of the ways in which they processed this experience was through the production and purchase of so-called “trench art.”

Matchbox cover decorated with insignia of the
Royal Canadian Artillery
Imperial War Museums  © IWM (EPH 4285)
Trench art encompasses a whole range of objects made from shells, shell cases, detonators, bullets, shrapnel, and other scrap metal both during and after World War I. During the war, many of these pieces were made by off-duty soldiers as a way to fill their time and make some extra money. They fashioned items like cigarette lighters, matchbox covers, letter openers, and pens from scrap metal, sometimes personalizing them or decorating them with the insignia of regiments stationed in the area. After the war, economic deprivation, combined with the widespread availability of war débris, produced a thriving civilian trench art industry in France and Belgium. Individuals continued to produce items for sale to war widows, pilgrims, and battlefield tourists until war broke out again in 1939. 

Battlefield souvenir crucifix 
Imperial War Museums 
© IWM (EPH 1915)
Nicholas Saunders, who has written extensively about trench art, notes that the large number of soldiers declared “missing,” along with the British decision not to repatriate the dead, meant that there was a continuous stream of visitors to the old Western Front between 1919 and 1939. Many of these visitors appear to have returned home with some sort of trench art souvenir. “Such objects,” Saunders writes, “were often the only material reminder of the dead.” Widows and family members purchased trench art for a variety of reasons: “as souvenirs of a visit, as acts of worship to the deceased’s memory, and of solidarity and empathy with local people for whom their loved ones had died and whose economic hardships were everywhere apparent.” There was an additional layer of irony here, too, as many of the women who later visited the battlefields had themselves worked in the factories that produced the weapons of war.

Trench art of unknown origin and purpose
The origin and purpose of this piece of trench art from the Alice’s collection is unknown. It is made of scrap brass and a bullet, and is decorated with a German Iron Cross medal and a flattened metal disc, possibly a coin or button. It may have been intended for use as an ashtray. The nature of the item suggests that it was made by a soldier during the war, rather than as a later souvenir. It is possible that this item, like the German helmet we featured last week on our Facebook page, was brought back by local soldier Ralph Worthley Wheeler. Wheeler went to France with the 26th Engineers, which was responsible for ensuring a steady supply of clean water for soldiers and animals at the front, as well as at hospitals and encampments. He returned to the United States in June 1919 and was hospitalized in New York. He was finally discharged in January 1920, but died just a few weeks later as a result of illness acquired during his service. It is likely that his parents, Ralph and Fannie Wheeler of Chazy, donated his war souvenirs to the Alice after his death.

The meaning of trench art is ambiguous. On the one hand, the fragmented nature of the objects can be seen as reflecting the literal fragmentation of objects, landscapes, and bodies during battle. On the other hand, trench art might be looked at as an attempt to exert some kind of control over the chaos of war, by turning its débris into something useful and even beautiful. For civilians, trench art provided a link to absent loved ones, and by bringing these objects into their homes, they in a sense “domesticated” the war, making shells, bullets, and grenades an everyday part of their environment. 


Nicholas J. Saunders, “Bodies of Metal, Shells of Memory: ‘Trench Art’ and the Great War Re-cycled,” Journal of Material Culture 5, no. 1 (March 2000): 43-67. 

Fergus Read, “Trench Art,” Imperial War Museums

Monday, April 10, 2017

The American Red Cross in the First World War

When the German Army invaded Belgium in August 1914, it sparked a massive humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Belgian civilians were desperately in need of food, clothing, and medical care, and as the war advanced, this need extended to the occupied regions of northern France as well. Americans quickly moved to support the organizations that were formed to address the crisis. Future president Herbert Hoover first came to national attention as the chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, administering the distribution of over 2 million tons of food in two years. 

Poster for Red Cross clothing drive
Also at the forefront of humanitarian aid was the American Red Cross. First established in the US in 1881, the Red Cross was still fairly small, but it was one of the few national organizations that was prepared to take on this kind of work. The ARC was able to launch a ship, the SS Red Cross, within a few weeks of the war’s outbreak, carrying medical personnel and supplies to be distributed in England France, Germany, and Russia. Although the United States was still neutral at this time, in September 1914 the ladies of West Chazy were busy making up garments from material donated by local businesses, which they sent to the American Red Cross offices in New York. 

When the US officially declared war on Germany in April 1917, the role and responsibilities of the Red Cross changed dramatically. The ARC would continue its humanitarian work with civilians in Europe, but would now also take on the responsibility of attending to the needs of American soldiers and their families both at home and overseas. In May 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed a War Council to direct the Red Cross and appointed New York banker Henry P. Davison as its chair.

Official Red Cross pajama pattern
Image from Unsung Sewing Patterns
Davison, with the assistance of other men from the banking and business communities, completely reorganized the Red Cross. They created 13 geographical divisions, which were further subdivided into chapters (e.g., the Plattsburgh Chapter, which encompassed all of Clinton County) and then into branches (Chazy, Champlain, Mooers, etc.). As Davison wrote, each chapter was “a complete miniature Red Cross” with its own offices and committees. The goal was, as much as possible, to standardize the production, collection, and distribution of the items being made at the local level—socks, bandages, pajamas, “comfort kits,” etc. The Red Cross issued official patterns for knitted and sewn items, and set standards for everything, down to the number of bandages that should come out of each yard of gauze.

Red Cross War Fund Week poster
In addition to producing clothing and other items for soldiers and refugees, the Red Cross raised funds to be used for war relief work. Most of this fundraising was concentrated into two “war drives,” one-week periods when Americans were urged to focus their efforts on the financial needs of the Red Cross. The Red Cross set a goal of $100 million for each drive (June 18-25, 1917 and May 20-27, 1918) and both times exceeded that goal, collecting over $283 million total.

Alice Miner played an important role in helping Chazy raise its share of the second drive’s goal. War Fund Week began with a patriotic meeting at Chazy Central Rural School, at which representatives from the chapter offices spoke about the work of the Red Cross. Three days of canvassing to collect donations followed. Alice, as head of the entertainment committee, organized a screening of the film “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” at the school auditorium, and the Boys’ and Girls’ Glee Clubs performed, raising additional funds. The week culminated with a tea at Heart’s Delight, followed by a dance at Harmony Hall. Guests were free to stroll about the grounds, which were furnished with chairs and hammocks. In all, Chazy raised $1394.59 during War Fund Week in 1918.

Louise Trainer’s Red Cross Service Medal
Alice’s sister Louise Trainer must have also contributed to War Fund Week and other Red Cross activities in Chazy, because she was awarded a service medal for her work in 1918. While the higher levels of administration were mostly filled with men, at the local level, Red Cross work was largely in the hands of women like Alice and Louise. Providing medical care, clothing, and “comforts” for soldiers and their families fell within the realm of activities thought suitable for women, and many of them already had experience working with charitable, missionary, and other volunteer organizations. For people who were unable to fight due to their age or sex, the Red Cross was the ideal organization into which to channel their energy and patriotism.


“World War I and the American Red Cross,”

“The American Red Cross,”

Henry P. Davison, The American Red Cross in the Great War (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1919)