On Veterans Day, LJ book reviewer Ed Burgess (EB), library director at the Combined Arms Research Library, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and I (MH) had a conversation about Ed’s hobby: the crafting of models. We discussed Ed’s modelling particularly in relation to World War I as its centennial approaches. (By the way, you can see our World War I collection development piece here).
And now we chat about one of my hobbies, collecting trench art.
MH: While your hobby requires skill, patience, dexterity, and historical understanding, mine doesn’t.
EB: —although some historical understanding may lead to the desire to collect trench art in the first place.
MH: Yes. For me it was after reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).
EB: What did Paul Fussell have to say about trench art?
MH: Not a thing. I don’t think he even mentioned it.
EB: I see…
MH: At that time, and for years after, scholars didn’t seem to think trench art, a variety of folk art after all, was worthy of serious study. But his book, in showing the many cultural consequences of the war, led me to explore further and come upon it.
EB: I think you’d better tell us what trench art is.
MH: Sure! Although it’s now a generic term used to describe manipulated artifacts from any war, the term originally referred to the pieces produced either by soldiers themselves during World War I or, more commonly, by artisans, especially along what had been the western front, after the war.
EB: Show us some examples.
MH: The most common varieties of World War I trench art are naturally those made from the most common kinds of battle detritus: empty brass shell cases and spent rifle cartridges and bullets. On the right is a pair of 75 mm French shell cases. Nicholas J. Saunders, in his Trench Art, second ed. (Pen & Sword, 2011), would describe these as “elaborately corsetted” and with an art nouveau style of decoration.
EB: Wow. How were those made?
MH: At battle sites there were dumps of hundreds of thousands of empty shell cases which were to be shipped back from the battlefields for refilling and reuse, but some cases always got into the hands of individuals. First the trench artist would need to heat the case to make the heavy brass workable. The two most common ways were either to fill the case with heated sand (the trenches were all shored up with sand bags) or to pour melted lead inside, which would need to be reheated during the work and in order to pour it out of the shell case when finished. The corsetting or fluting was usually done with a gripping tool that could be tightened to create that effect.
EB: So that pair, above, commemorates Verdun 1918—but the Battle of Verdun was in 1916.
MH: Right, and furthermore, the markings on the shell bottoms (see one of them at left) show that they were manufactured after Verdun in 1917.
EB: The “75 DEC” means 75 mm. “de campagne”—field artillery.
MH: This is part of what’s fun about exploring trench art. Here’s what I guess: given that over the nine brutal months of the Battle of Verdun in 1916 millions of rounds of this kind of shell were fired by the French (who deemed Verdun a tactical victory by sheer dint of survival), a French soldier or artisan after the war may have wanted to commemorate the use of these shells at Verdun for bringing about the Armistice in 1918. But we can never know. There are photos, such as below, of soldiers themselves toiling away at making ornamental shell cases, but were they photographed because it was a routine activity to be documented or because it was unusual?
EB: So soldiers—and later artisans or metalworkers—collected shell cases from the battlefields and, by creating special pieces with them, found a means of commemorating their service or, later, of making money in the midst of the devastation to their land and property.
MH: Yes. Here’s another shell case I have—my hand is there for scale. Beautiful embossing of a grapevine and with pie-crust edging at the top. The interesting thing here is that this is a shell predating the war, manufactured in 1908, part of the stockpiles used at the start of hostilities.
EB: After the war, the western front became a kind of tourist attraction, so artisans were working to meet a demand for these pieces as souvenirs.
MH: You and I each have examples of the travel guides and postcard souvenirs made for post-World War I battlefield tourists. A tourist buying the postcard set, below, for example, might also buy a pair of ornamental shells to bring home.
EB: This is the trouble with collecting. One thing leads to another. Now you’re not just collecting trench art, but the stuff related to it.
MH: I know, I know.
EB: What else do you have—of trench art?
MH: Here’s an ink well and pen holder, at left, made out of the end of an 18 pounder (shell case) mounted on a horseshoe, and with a time and percussion fuse as the ink well on top.
EB: Not bad. The fuse would have been the nose of the shell. I see that the pen holder and pen are made from a combination of rifle cartridges and probably some scrap brass. That piece looks much more like something an actual soldier or officer would have put together as a one-off.
MH: I think you’re right. We like to think of trench art as all produced by soldiers, but especially when it comes to art with applied details—a commercially manufactured bit that’s been added on—it’s more likely to have been part of an artisan’s cottage industry. For example, here’s a crucifix with the cross made of rifle cartridges and copper full metal jacket bullets and the figure of Jesus an applied commercially produced feature.
EB: And what’s your favorite piece?
MH: I think my favorites are the bracelets, rings, and identification tokens. To the left is a bracelet made from the driving band of an artillery shell, with applied oak leaves and the dates 1914–1915. There’s no telling if it’s by a German or an Allied maker. In front of it is a chain bracelet with British officers’ insignia. Would an officer himself have done that with his insignia? Maybe for his sweetheart? Would he have traded them to someone else who made the bracelet? Hard to know.
Rings were largely produced by individual combatants, often from melting scrap aluminum or modifying a coin. Easier work Here’s a ring made from a1918 florin to commemorate the U.S. Naval Air Station at Killingholme in England.
EB: What other books do you recommend for studying trench art? And where can we find pieces of it for sale?
MH: In addition to Saunders, above, there’s a large color-illustrated volume by Jane A. Kimball: Trench Art: An Illustrated History (Silverpenny, 2004). As for finding pieces of trench art, you can certainly do a lot of exploring online these days. The prices are still pretty affordable.
EB: You know, I didn’t ask you why you collect trench art.
MH: I guess it’s something to do with reckoning with the experience of war. I think the participants and survivors themselves found something in the creation of these pieces that in some small way was a means of coping with the brutality around them and a way to mark their own or their fellows’ service. It’s chilling, disturbing, to see such pastoral images of flowers and vines hammered onto projectiles that were created for mass destruction and loss of life. Yet, with millions killed and no veterans now alive, trench art survives as something to hold and contemplate. I guess that’s it.
Are you a librarian and/or LJ book reviewer with a hobby you’d like to chat about with Margaret? If you’d like to tell us how your hobby grew out of your reading and what it means to you, email firstname.lastname@example.org.