Trench art is any decorative item made by soldiers, prisoners of war or civilians, where the creation is linked to armed conflict or its consequences. Although much of the trench art found at antique or gun shows and estate sales today is from World War I, the history of trench art goes back to the Napoleonic wars when French prisoners of war in British prisons created elaborate boxes, models and other items from soup bones. During the Civil War soldiers decorated powder horns, canteens and snuff boxes with engravings and made game pieces from spent bullets.
As artillery and ammunition progressed in the Spanish-American War, shell casings were engraved with the details of battles or shaped into vases as decorative war mementos.
Trench art generally falls into several different categories, based on its origin:
War souvenirs made and collected by soldiers (and non-combatants) included shell fragments, empty shell casings, enemy helmets, military buttons and driving bands from spent shells. Brass shell casings were among the most popular canvases for those with artistic skills. Many of these souvenirs were brought home by soldiers and personalized or mounted into special pieces as a remembrance by the soldier or for a loved one. Trench art also includes souvenirs made for sale to soldiers by other soldiers or civilians during the war, and those made by prisoners of war in exchange for food cigarettes or money.
Some soldiers used cartridge clips or rifle cartridges to make souvenirs. And because nearly every soldier smoked, tobacco humidors, lighters and match boxes were also popular items to be made and decorated from these remnants of war.
Letter openers made from pieces of flat brass and soldered to cartridge casings were also popular. Many of these were engraved with the names of soldiers or the date and city of a particular battle.
Wounded soldiers were often encouraged to take up crafts as part of their recuperation and to relieve boredom. Embroidery, woodworking, and other skills were taught to soldiers as therapy in their convalescence. Many of these ceramic pieces, wooden frames, letter openers and embroidered postcards were sold to the public as war souvenirs.
Trench art also includes post-war souvenirs that were made for tourist vising battlefields, and souvenirs made by commercial firms in trench-art style.
Although the painted or carved shell casings bring to mind a soldier carving a beautiful piece of art in between rounds of fire in a trench along the front lines, this wasn’t the case. For the most part trench art was created far behind the front lines by soldiers on leave, by skilled civilian artisans by prisoners of war or by convalescing soldiers. And while the creators of most of these pieces remain anonymous, they leave a legacy of soldiers creating beauty in the midst of war and conflict.
You can find more information about trench art at trenchart.org and in Jane Kimball's book, Trench Art: An Illustrated History.
Here are a few images from trench art lamps that we repaired and restored:
Watch a video Kirk made of a recent trenchart lamp project.
We feel privileged to help preserve and honor the soldier’s story that is a part of each one of these pieces of history.