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

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