Swords into ploughshares: the world of trench art



2016-06-14 14:41:43

The First World War is as well-known for its flowering of literary talent as it was for is vicious, grinding brutality.

Writers like Siegfried Sassoon, Erich Remarque and Henri Barbusse documented the horror of the conflict in writing.

It had an equally galvanising effect on western art, ushering in the modernist era.

The world was forever altered. 

Even now the ferocity of the Great War shocks.

But people have an innate ability to adapt to their surroundings.

Even in the worst conditions, creativity is present.

This is what makes trench art such an utterly fascinating product of war.

From shell cases hewn into vases to delicate embroideries produced in sanatoriums, there’s a great irony in turning instruments of death into beautiful, delicate objects.  

What is trench art?

War has been described as “months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror."

Carved shell casings are the most common examples of trench art - Image: Wikimedia Commons

Carved shell casings are the most common examples of trench art - Image: Wikimedia Commons

That was certainly the case in the first world war, where troops spent around 15% of their time in battle.

There is a long history of soldiers crafting and creating art during their downtime but it became something of a cottage industry in the 1800s, when French prisoners captured during the Napoleonic wars began making souvenirs in their internment camps.

In fact, pretty much every conflict from the early 19th century onwards has its own variant of trench art.

But it’s from the First World War that the form takes its name, in part due to the sheer volume of work produced. 

In truth, relatively little trench art was created on the front line.

Soldiers there were too busy fighting and dying.

The pieces that were made there tend to be smaller objects and carvings in wood, metal and bone.

They were worked on to while away the hours until you were rotated out.

Bernard Pass of military auctioneers Bosley’s explains: “Most genuine trench art was on the crude side, as the soldiers didn’t have the kit or the skills to make things look nice.

“They were also usually under fire and so making polished, professional items wasn’t a priority.”

A lot of trench art was made in the reserve trenches, away from the worst of the fighting, or in convalescence.

Often it was made by soldiers and sold to others in order to make a bit of extra cash or to raise funds for the wounded.

The vast majority, though, was produced by non-combatants – both during and after the war (particularly from 1919 to 1939).  

The wastefulness of the conflict meant that there was no end of scrap to twist and shape into new forms.

Creating souvenirs for occupying armies (and then visiting families and tourists) became a lifeline for people uprooted from their homes and jobs.  

A letter opener made from spent bullet casings - Image: Wikimedia Commons

A letter opener made from spent bullet casings - Image: Wikimedia Commons

Societies across Europe had been fully immersed in war for years.

Artefacts offering a connection with sons, brothers and husbands on the frontlines were in high demand.

When hostilities ceased, trinket stands were set up at the great battlefields - offering your own little piece of the war.

For most collectors though, the most sought after pieces are those that can be tied to a particular individual and date.

These can be very rare and difficult to authenticate.

For example…

Perhaps the most iconic (and ubiquitous) examples of first world war trench art are those that use shell casings.

It’s no surprise really; there was no shortage of them about.

Crucifixes were common subjects - Image: Wikimedia Commons

Crucifixes were common subjects - Image: Wikimedia Commons

During the Battle of Verdun, which lasted well over nine months, around 65m shells were fired by all sides.

Verdun was just one battle.

The Somme was raging at the same time, further up the line.

Farmers working the battlefields today are still bringing up vast numbers of ballistics, many still active.  

The casings would be polished and etched with the design of choice.

Often they would be shaped into crosses, or cut down to make boxes or drinking vessels.

Bernard Pass says: “Shell cases are the most common items of trench art we see.

“Often they are very simple, with the name of a French or Belgian town and the date.”

Smaller items, like jewellery or letter openers, were popular as they could be worked on obsessively and squirreled away easily.

For many soldiers, many of who were suffering from shell shock (what we term PTSD today), art acted as a way of relieving stress.

Professor Nicholas Saunders, an expert in trench art at the University of Bristol, explains: “It was probably a mix of several factors; boredom, making souvenirs for loved ones back home and making souvenirs for cash or services at the front.

"Some of the more gifted makers clearly had an innate artistic drive and there was also a religious impulse for the minority who made bullet-crosses and crucifixes.


Trench art became increasingly rare from the start of the Second World War, when attics and basements were raided for scrap metal to use to make new weapons.

In the 1950s and 1960s much was offloaded to scrapyards.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Flowers are a common motif on shell casing carvings - Image: Wikimedia Commons

Many pieces were lost.

But as the years have passed, interest in the field has grown.

We recently passed the centenary of the start of the Great War; an occasion marked with the observance of public memorials.

The quiet power of trench art lies in the connection it offers to the past.

To the cold, frightened soldier at the bottom of a trench working a small piece of jewellery by the light of a candle.

Or the shell that once roared overhead and now sits, silently, on the mantelpiece. 

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