Jane Kimball's book, Trench
Art: An Illustrated History, was a finalist for the the 2005 Independent Publishers Book award and is available for purchase through Atlas Books or Amazon.
Art of the Great War
Jane A. Kimball 1989, 2005
Cruel destroyers of humans and
TABLE of CONTENTS
Projectiles with brass casings, first produced in 1857, replaced cannon balls and other artillery ammunition as the century progressed. The Spanish-American War and the Boer War were the first wars in which this type of ammunition was widely used. Typical shell casing souvenirs from this period were engraved with the details of battles or inscribed as souvenir of the war or merely shaped into vases to be kept as decorative mementoes.
Design in high relief with
First World War, The Great War, The War to End All Wars or The
War for Civilization as it was variously called, evolved into a
stagnant form of trench warfareafter the initial German invasion
Trench art is a highly evocative term conjuring up the image of a mud-spattered soldier in a soggy trench hammering out a souvenir for a loved one at home while dodging bullets and artillery shells. This is an appealing but very false conception of the reality of this art form. A few types of trench art (finger rings made from melted down aluminum are a good example) could be made easily in a trench during lulls in the fighting, but the hammering involved in making many trench art pieces would have been greeted with unwelcome hostile fire from the enemy. Trench art items made during the war were in fact created at a distance from the front line trenches either by soldiers at rest behind the front lines, by skilled artisans among the civilian population, by prisoners of war, or by soldiers convalescing from wounds as handicraft therapy.
Pieces described as trench art have the following distinctly different origins:
SHELL ART VASES:
Many of the 75m and 77mm shells were sent or brought home for use as flower vases. The decorative work on these pieces varies widely from crudely punched designs made by amateur soldier-artists to elaborately embossed and engraved pieces made by skilled soldier or civilian artisans. Popular themes included floral designs, animals, patriotic figures, unit identifications, battles and various military images such as aeroplanes, tanks, and artillery pieces. Other shells bear personal inscriptions to loved ones. Some give detailed accounts of a soldiers service. The smaller 37mm shell casings were used to produce many of the same decorative effects. They fitted easily into a pocket or kit bag and were much more transportable than the larger shells.
The passage of time
has obscured the provenance of many of these pieces forever. As they
are dredged from basements and attics, relics of a long forgotten war,
and sold or consigned to second hand or antique shops or sold at
estate sales, objects are forced to speak for themselves. Some pieces,
with specific names, units, battles and dates are eloquent. . .most
have drifted so far from their original moorings that it is not
possible to determine into which of the above tidy categories they
TRENCH ART PIECES:
Hand-crafted models are splendid examples of 'soldier art'. Aeroplanes and tanks were popular subjects; less common are models of artillery pieces and submarines.
Letter openers or
paper knives, often made in a scimitar style from pieces of flat brass
soldered to cartridge casings, were a popular 'trench art' item, and
an amazing number of these have survived. The more interesting ones of
this type are engraved with the names of battles or individuals. Other
letter openers utilized copper driving bands or shell fragments to
create souvenir letter openers. Napkin rings, another common
domestic item, were made from scrap brass and less commonly from
aluminum salvaged from crashed zeppelins. Coal scuttles and dinner
gongs, mainstays of most households at the time, were replicated in
trench art, often with intricate engraving. Models of coal scuttles are
sometimes referred to as sugar scoops or in the smaller 37mm size as
salt scoops. Picture frames were made from scrap brass or wood. Wooden
aeroplane propellers provided raw material for picture frames and
clocks. Aluminum from canteens or mess kits was transformed into a
variety of objects unrelated to sordid everyday warfare. Trench art
finger rings were produced in quantity from brass, aluminum or from
silver coins. Regimental badges made into pins and lockets, often called
'sweetheart jewelry' were made by soldiers and commercial firms to
confirm the bond between soldiers at the front and their loved ones at
The soldier's 'tin hat' was another site for artistic endeavor. Hand-painted helmets vary from those with divisional, regimental or unit insignia to a variety of 'camouflage' designs to beautiful 'souvenir' helmets embodying a variety of military and patriotic images and dates and details of service. American helmets with painted insignia date from the army of occupation in Germany, and many doughboys commissioned talented artists to paint elaborate designs on their helmets to take home as souvenirs. German helmets painted with camouflage patterns are often found. Painted souvenir British helmets are more rare.
Gas mask carriers
were sometimes embroidered or marked with pen or pencil with
imaginative inscriptions such as "I Need Thee Every Hour", "War Bride"
or "Always in the Way". Painting on artillery pieces and aeroplanes
displayed a variety of soldier sentiments. As the war progressed,
painting on aeroplane canvas became a fine art, personalizing the
machine with bright color schemes, artistically painted insignia and
decorations such as shark's teeth. This form of soldier art
reached its peak in the 'nose art' of WWII.
TOURISM AND SOUVENIRS:
In their tour many pilgrims pause and stand sometimes in meditation, reflecting upon the deeds of valour, so many of them untold, and of sacrifice that will never be known, of which the landscape has been the witness and that nearly every village knew.
Other tourists were eager to collect their own personal souvenirs, and Thomas Cook and Sons 1920 brochure deemed it necessary to preface descriptions of tours offered by their firm with the following quotation from Rudyard Kipling, who had lost his beloved only son in the war:
It rests with the individual tourist to have respect for the spirit that lies upon all that land of desolation and to walk through it with reverence.
At the well-known
ruins of buildings at
An immense amount of surplus war material was scrapped or sold off after the war. In Brooklyn, New York a native-born Scot, Francis Bannerman, had speculated on surplus from the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, making considerable profit from resale of equipment and fabrication of assemblages of knives, bayonets and other pieces of military surplus into souvenir military decorations. When the opportunity to purchase military surplus after WWI arose, Bannerman purchased a huge amount of this material. Some of Bannermans recycled and mounted pieces occasionally appear today advertised as trench art.
Among the most
desirable of commercial pieces made from shell casings were those
fabricated by the Arts and Crafts artist, Dirk van Erp, an immigrant
Jane Kimball's book, Trench Art: An Illustrated History, (Silverpenny Press, 2004) is a comprehensive survey of all types of trench art and related war souvenirs from the Napoleonic Wars to the present With more than 400 pages of text and 1,000 color illustrations, the book focuses on objects made during and after the Great War. It includes extensive references to trench art in WWI periodicals and other contemporary sources. Military collectors as well as art historians and social historians share an interest in trench art. The book is heavily illustrated with examples of the diverse body of objects known as "trench art," as well as information on identifying individual pieces and tips for collectors.
Text and Photographs Jane A. Kimball 1989, 2005
may be addressed by e-mail to : janeallisonkimball at gmail.com
Page Page updated 6-23-07
The makers of this
folk art are then mostly anonymous. Pieces like the one illustrated,
in which a note was enclosed, are extremely rare. Pieces of shell
fragments and similar items mounted after the war as souvenirs
sometimes give information about the person who collected them. Shell
case flower vases, the central objects of interest to many trench art
collectors, are valued by different collectors either for the quality
of the art work on a piece, for specific unit or regimental
identifications, or for the commemoration of individual battles. Some
shell case vases identify individuals, their ranks and units and the
battles in which they fought, or are engraved with the names of the
persons for whom they were made. Others feature figural themes such as
national patriotic symbols: the Statue of Liberty, Britannia, the French
cockerel, portraits of King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of
The headstamp (the markings on the bottom of a shell casing) are valuable identification marks. Typically, a headstamp includes the caliber of the shell, the manufacturer, and the date of the shell. This does not mean, however, that a French shell casing was decorated by a French soldier or civilian or that a German shell casing was the work of a German soldier. Hundreds of thousands of British, French, and German shells were amassed in large scrap heaps, and a trench artist merely picked one to decorate. Iron crosses were popular motifs for Allied soldiers as well as German forces. Pairs of shell casings with one marked 1914 and the other 1918 were very popular souvenirs of the war. Sometimes pairs have been separated, and the 1914 piece is sold as having been made in 1914. If the headstamp indicates the shell was manufactured after 1914, the decorated shell could not have been made in that year.
Shell casings were decorated by a variety of metalworking techniques, of which embossing or hammering, engraving and zig-zag or wigglework were the most common. Applying regimental or city crests or other items to the surface of a shell casing, called appliqu work, was another popular form of decoration.
of trench art souvenirs were brought home by soldiers and by tourists
visiting the battlefields after the war, many pieces eventually
drifted up to attics or down to basements as memories of the war
faded. Old soldiers sometimes wished to erase painful experiences by
putting away their souvenirs. A trench art piece often did not fit
into a new decorating scheme or its meaning was lost after the death
of the person who had brought it home. An enormous number of pieces
were destroyed in the scrap metal
Collectors in the 1950s and even into the 1960s in fact found scrap metal yards a rich source of trench art. Current collectors tend to find their treasures at antique shops and shows, gun shows, estate and yard sales, and more recently in cyberspace through the Internet. Unlike collectors in some other genres, trench art does not suffer in a major way from reproduction pieces passed off as genuine, since the work involved in making a single decorated object may have required as many as 10,000 hammer blows from start to finish, not including any additional embellishments added by the artist.
With the richness of pieces to choose from, one new collector might aim for a broadly based collection with examples of several kinds of trench art. Another might be interested only in decorated shell casings. Within this genre there is ample room for specialization. Vases with floral decorations or those identifying military units or battles or figural vases are all possible areas on which to focus a collection. Some collectors with specialized interests in other areas have come to appreciate trench art inkwells, tobacco humidors and lighters, embroidery, buttonhooks, and Turkish beadwork as desirable additions to their collections.
The opinions of collectors on cleaning and polishing trench art pieces, especially those made from brass, are varied and strongly held. Many trench art pieces, especially those that come from barns, attics and garages, can be grubby with dirt and dust accumulated over several years. They also come with a variety of interior contents: more dirt, old matches, chicken feathers and accumulations of old dust. Warm water and dishwashing detergent will flush out the interior of a shell casing, and a soft plastic vegetable brush will remove much of the dust and grime from the exterior surface. This and a thin coating of fine carnuba wax is often all that is needed before displaying a piece.
Shells brought home after the war to Belgian and British households joined horse brasses and other brass objects on mantelpieces and hall tables. They were assiduously polished by the lady of the house or by a housemaid and over the years the original design has often been almost totally obliterated, thus reducing the artistic appeal of these pieces to some collectors.
Many brass pieces have beautiful patinas created over the years through the natural oxidation of the copper content of the brass. Some, judging from the recipes in formularies popular during the period, were probably artificially patinated at the time they were made or shortly thereafter to prevent tarnishing. Other shell casings were varnished shortly after they were made to prevent tarnishing. In many cases the varnish has mellowed to a pleasant finish. There is also some evidence that depressions in the patterns on some brass pieces were filled with material of a different color to make the designs stand out more clearly.
Some dealers and collectors strive to polish pieces made from shell casings down to the raw brass to make them look like they were when they were made. Unless they are coated after polishing with wax or a tarnish-resistant finish the natural patinization process will begin spontaneously, sometimes resulting in an unattractive piece. It is useful to remember that every time a piece is polished a small layer of its design is forever obliterated.
Bookshelves or similar display cases are a useful way to display shell art vases and aluminum pieces. Smaller items like lighters, match boxes and letter openers can be displayed effectively in Riker Display Mount boxes or similar small cases, which provide a good overview of pieces in a particular category without excessive handling.
Every piece of
trench art is a unique artistic creation. Each in the end is valued
for its past associations with a family member or friend, for its
individual personality, for the skill with which a particular
artistic design is rendered, or for its association with a specific
military unit or battle. This unique art form, born of blood and
sacrifice, deserves much more attention than it has received to