The Great War Symposium: II - The Many Faces of World War One Trench Art


Paul Cornish, Historian and Senior Curator, Imperial War Museum

18 October 2014


Trench art was a very ‘Great War’ idea. It covered a host of objects, many of them very small, recycled from fragments of timber or weaponry by soldiers. As a serious academic subject, it did not take wing until the 1990s, led by the historian Nicholas Saunders. The volume of material is enormous, and of course very miscellaneous; there are social, artistic and also anthropological aspects to it all. War consisted of intense physical hard work in the trenches, much discomfort, and much boredom, alongside (of course) some fighting. There were souvenirs, for example a German spiked helmet.  These usually went as trophies to those who arrived in the battlefield later on; soldiers in action normally found little of interest. Some trench art was made with a direct purpose as occupational therapy, by wounded men.

Engraved WWI shell cases

Examples are legion:

1.     An army biscuit inscribed ‘A Happy Xmas from Dardanelles, 1915’ (an ironic message from Gallipoli).

2.     A paper knife made from a German shell.

3.     Decorated shell cases. One was a souvenir from the Battle of Loos, with figures, some done with a bent nail. Others had Art Nouveau-style female figures, and yet another was a complex, sophisticated concave object, of uncertain function.

4.     A cap, made out of a French shell.

5.     Pieces of linen, sewn with messages: ‘From you loving husband Harry’ (green) ‘To my dear Mother’ (white). Another had Mesopotamia, India, Palestine and Egypt sewn in the four corners.

6.     A gold-coloured tobacco jar, in inlaid copper and aluminium, made from a shell-case (by POW).

7.     A fabric snake (by Internees) 

8.     A painted box (done by Royal Navy volunteers).

9.     A purse made out of rat-skin.

10.  Embroidery: A ‘Roses of Picardy’ teacloth or tablecloth.

11.  Beadwork (green and black).

12.  A carved ship.

13.  Fretwork figures) caricatures) such as a V.A.D. nurse or a postman in blue uniform

14.  Another was a caricature of a captive German soldier, in tow to a French soldier smoking a pipe and carrying the German’s helmet in his gun barrel

15.  Aluminium rings made by wounded soldiers. The eagle made from a German button.

16.  A wooden postcard sent in December 1914, saying ‘Merry Xmas’ and showing a German soldier being guarded by an Allied soldier. Naturally (there was a German equivalent of this).

17.  A cartridge case, plus two bullets which became a crucifix / figure of Christ

18.  Copper driving-bands (instruments to ensure that shells would fit into the barrel of a gun) became paper knives.

Men of the Royal Engineers or the Army Service Corps (ASC) often made tools. These men had access to workshop facilities. On the Western Front, local craftsmen and women adapted their skills (metalworking, woodworking, lace-making, embroidery) to producing souvenirs for sale to Allied soldiers.

Doughboy helmet, 28th Infantry

Many of the trench art examples became ‘memory objects’, a link between the new post-war era and past events.

Inkwell in the form of a WWI tank

In his book The First World War Galleries, published in 2014 by the Imperial War Museum, Paul Cornish illustrates (p.170) a range of trench art ‘lucky charms’ made by soldiers to ward off the real threat of destruction and disaster. The London –based folklorist Edward Lovett collected these objects, having previously been known as a collector of amulets and charms before war broke out. The ten items shown are:

Fork and spoon made from Western Front bullets

Crucifix made from Western Front bullets

Cribbage board made from an Enfield No 1 butt stock

1.     A brass horseshoe charm, made from a fragment of German shell, at Ypres, by a wounded Belgian soldier

2.     A coal fragment sent to a soldier at the front for luck

3.     A green Connemara marble boot charm, carried by an Irish soldier

4.     A lucky black cat brooch, carried by a London soldier

5.     A marble four-leafed clover lucky charm

6.     A lucky pig charm, made from Irish bog-oak

7.     A white stone arrow charm worn by a USA soldier

8.     A Chinese brown soapstone monkey (carried by both British and Japanese soldiers)

9.     A doll brooch, representing a wounded soldier

10.  A boat-shaped Connemara marble charm, again carried by an Irish soldier

The growth in awareness of Trench Art in recent years has been a sharp one. It has been stimulated by the publication of two studies around the same time. Nicholas J. Saunders’ Trench Art: Materialities and Memories of War is the shorter of these, published by Berg (Oxford and New York) in 2003.  The second, effectively a large, scholarly oversize coffee-table book, is by Jane E Kimball, under the title Trench Art: An Illustrated History (Silverpenny Press, Davis, California, 2004). Kimball’s chosen epigraph is by the French painter Fernand Leger, originally quoted by the art historian Richard Cork in 1994, and it runs ‘It was in the trenches that I really seized on the reality of objects.’ Kimball dedicates her extensive study ‘to many anonymous artists who have given us these beautiful pieces made from the Detritus of war.’

WWI matchbox cover, West Riding Regiment

The cover of Saunders’ book is ‘Dressed to Kill’ by Joseph C Fornelli; teak and brass.  50-calibre shell casings (1965) in the collection of the National Vietnam Art Museum, Chicago. Kimball’s larger book is inevitably more elaborately presented. She chose as a frontispiece a double image, part of German artillery shells decorated at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem. On the left is one with inlaid silver and copper, suns, stars the Ten Commandments tablets, the skyline of Jerusalem, and a hand-engraved ‘Conquest of Jerusalem, December 7 1917.’

On the right are copper bands and embossed floral designs with silver and copper stars and the Ten Commandments tablets. The bottom of the shell is engraved ‘Bezalel’ and ‘Jerusalem’ in Hebrew. The front cover of Kimball’s book-jacket is even more elaborate. It shows, left to right, seven separate items, as follows:

1.     A Belgian canteen, made into a picture frame, with a portrait of a young soldier

2.     A bone carved by a German POW

3.     An American painted helmet, showing the name of HG Booth, 190th TMB, AEF France

4.     A beadwork snake made by a Turkish POW

5.     A bell made from a rifle cartridge and shell timing fuse

6.     A model of a German Taube (pigeon/dove) aeroplane

7.     An artillery shell decorated with the Statue of Liberty


Notes from Paul Cornish’s talk, with other additions by 

Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor, Literature and Humanities, BRLSI