Trench Art

I didn’t know about “trench art” until I was acquainted with the name in an artist’s studio in Fenway last fall. Among his many treasures, he had created an elaborately etched metal canister with organic swirls and whirls that was home to about a dozen or so of his many paintbrushes. He asked me if I knew what it was..

“er, a decorative paint brush holder?”

“a shell casing.”

It turns out the artist fought in the Vietnam War and this was an example of “trench art” or “tramp art” as he also called it, which is an alternate name for any form of self-taught art/folk art/art brut etc.

(A dump of 18 pounder shell cases used in the bomdardment of Fricourt)


Trench art is commonly defined as any decorative item made by soldiers, prisoners of war or civilians, where the manufacture is directly linked to armed conflict or its consequences.



Soldiers have always made decorative or souvenir objects in their spare time. During the Napoleonic Wars, French prisoners of war interned in British prison camps created a variety of elaborate boxes, models and other pieces made from soup bones as well as marquetry boxes and similar items using plaited straw. The Crimean War produced interesting souvenirs such as inkwells made from cannon balls. Soldiers in the American Civil War decorated powder horns, canteens and snuffboxes with personal and patriotic engravings and fabricated game pieces from bone and spent bullets. Sailors also have rich traditions of creating scrimshaw and needlework pieces.

Projectiles with brasscasings, 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. The 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 warfare’ after the initial German invasion into Belgium in 1914.

(carved cane handle)

Prolonged entrenchment of troops and a vast supply of the detritus of war provided an ever-expanding canvas for the talents of soldier-artists. Decorated objects made from 1914 throughout the post-war period are generally referred to as ‘trench art’.



There are four broad categories, four circumstances under which trench art items were created:

Category 1: Soldier-made items

(A shell case embossed with an image of two wounded Tommies(common British army soldiers) approaching the White Cliffs of Dover)

There is much evidence to prove that some trench art was actually made in the trenches, by soldiers, during the war. In With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, George Coppard talks about pressing his regimental buttons into the clay on the floor of the trench, then pouring molten lead from shrapnel balls into this impression to make lead replicas of the crest.

Chalk carvings were also popular, with contemporary postcards showing carvings into the side of rocky outcrops around dug-outs etc, which again confirm their existence in the battle zone. Alongside items that, by their nature, had to be made in situ, it is fair to assume many smaller items—rings, paper knives, etc.—were made by soldiers either in front line or support trenches, especially in quieter parts of the line.

In addition, wounded soldiers would be encouraged to do certain craftwork as part of the recuperation process, with embroidery and simple forms of woodwork being common. Again from With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, George Coppard recalls that, while recuperating from wounds at a private house in Birkenhead, “one kind old lady brought a supply of coloured silks and canvas and instructed us in the art of embroidery. A sampler which I produced under her guidance so pleased her that she had it framed for me.”

Category 2: POW and Internee items

The second category consists of items made by prisoners of war and interned civilians. Since Napoleonic times POWs had good reasons to create decorative objects – unending days with little to occupy them and limited food and money. Much POW work was therefore done with the express intention of trading the finished article for food, money or other privileges.

During WWII, Prisoners of war on both sides of the conflict produced an amazing variety of artifacts made for sale to soldiers or civilians in areas near the camps in which they were interned. Some camps held artistic exhibitions in which these handicrafts were offered for sale to the public. British civilians in Ruhleben, a camp outside Berlin, produced a number of objects made by melting down silver coins. They also made inventive use of available materials such as rat skins to make leather wallets. Many of these items were sent home as souvenirs to their families in Britain.

(horse hoof inkwell)

German prisoners in Britain created flower vases and napkin rings using mutton and beef bones from their rations, while Turkish prisoners made realistic snakes and other objects from beads. Russian prisoners made use of their woodworking skills to produce carved cigarette boxes and other items. Members of the Royal Naval Division interned in Holland crafted a variety of wooden boxes and picture frames. When brass and aluminum were made available to prisoners, many of them made souvenir shell vases, match box covers or letter openers to sell to their captors or to nearby civilians.

Category 3: Civilian-made items

(Carved shell cases of WWI. They bear the names of Tahure and Hurlus, two villages in the departement of Marne, destroyed by the hard fights and which were not rebuilt)

The third category is items made by civilians, which mainly means civilians in and around the conflict zone, but would also include items made by sweethearts at home. In 1914 America set up a Belgian Relief Fund, headed by Herbert Hoover. They shipped over staple foodstuffs, mainly flour sent in the printed cotton flour sacks typical of the period. In thanks, the Belgians would embroider and paint in the designs, elaborating them with dates and flags, etc., and send them back to America. Many of these are now in the Herbert Hoover Museum in Iowa, but some were sold to soldiers in Paris or given as gifts to individuals involved in the shipment process.

Civilians in France, in the zones occupied by troops, were quick to exploit this new market. Embroidered postcards were produced in what quickly became a cottage industry, with civilians buying the surrounds and embroidering the panel of gauze. These postcards often had regimental crests or patriotic flags and national symbols in abundance, and millions were produced over the course of the war.

(money bank)

When the war ended and civilians began to reclaim their shattered communities, a new market appeared in the form of pilgrims and tourists. Over the ensuing twenty years the mountains of discarded debris, shell casings and equipment were slowly recycled, with mass-produced town crest motifs being stuck onto bullets, shell casings, fuse caps—anything—and sold to tourists.

Category 4: Commercial-made items

The fourth category is purely commercial production. After the war, tons of surplus materials were sold by the government and converted to souvenirs of the conflict. Ship breaking, particularly if the ship had been involved in significant events, such as Jutland, resulted in much of the wood from the ship being turned into miniature barrels, letter racks, boxes, etc., with small brass plaques announcing “Made from teak from HMS XYS, whose guns relieved Ladysmith / fought at the battle of Jutland”, etc.


I think trench art is fascinating from a historical perspective and not necessarily for its aesthetic qualities(although some of the pieces are really remarkable.) I would be interested in learning more about the therapeutic/coping aspects of trench art not only in the hospitals during the war, but long after the soldiers left the battlefield as they grappled with making sense of everything and piecing their civilian lives back together.

Admittedly, I am not the biggest history buff so I have to credit Wikipedia , Trench Art of WWI (extensive artifact library), Great War Different(soldier/news articles) and for the great information. There is so much more to this art form than I can cover in one post like the airplane nose, helmet and gasmask art of WWII. But be sure to check out for a more comprehensive breakdown of the above categories.

Hopefully you were able to look past the cheesy embossed frames on some of the images(too tired to edit them out) and learned a thing or two or three

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