Trench Art

The detritus of war provided a canvas for the talents of soldier-artists.  These objects from 1914 onwards are known as trench art.

This term conjures up images of mud-spattered tommies in a soggy trench hammering or whittling a souvenir for a loved one at home whilst dodging bullets or artillery shells.  Although this image is appealing, and a few types such as finger rings from melted aluminium could be easily made in a trench during a lull in fighting, the hammering involved in many trench art pieces meant that they were probably created a fair distance from the front line, either by soldiers at rest, skilled artisans among the civilian population, prisoners of war or by soldiers convalescing in hospital.  It is probably only the very smallest wood or bone object that was created on the front line.

Major department stores such as Harrods or Selfridges – in the immediate post-war period, offered to turn war souvenirs into paper-weights, using shell cases.  Model tanks, planes, ashtrays, letter knives were typically found in stores, fashioned from spent charge cases and copper from shell driving bands, carved wood and bone and embroidery, however, few of these came from the trenches or were made by soldiers.

Royal Engineers Ypres Trench Art © IWM (EPH 3497) Item of 'trench art' made by (142817) Sapper E Southgate (Royal Engineers) whilst he was manning an underground telephone exchange in the Ypres district during the First World War.

Royal Engineers Ypres Trench Art © IWM (EPH 3497)