During the hellish Battle of Verdun that raged from February to December of 1916, an estimated 60 million shells were blasted between the French and the Germans, leaving the people and the ground around them mutilated. This was a new and grisly type of war, yet there was an unexpected by-product of these mounds of used shell cases: trench art.
The definition of what exactly can be counted as trench art varies, but it is widely accepted to center on World War I, where soldiers in the stretching, brutal battles created art with the remnants of war. Despite its name, trench art wasn’t usually done right in the muddy trenches, but rather after or by wounded soldiers, or often by prisoners of war. Yet no matter the point where it was made, whether right on the battlefield or in a hospital or in a prison, when trench art left conflict it gradually became this anonymously created, tangible memory of violence that can fade into history as quickly as it can destroy.
Most every military museum has some trench art as a curio in its collection, but there’s recently been a move away from treating it as an oddity and towards using it as insight into the experience and processing of war through art. As Nicholas J. Saunders wrote in the 2011 edition of his Trench Art: Materialities and Memories of War:
“In the decade since the original 2001 publication of this book, the study of Trench Art has been transformed. No longer is it the sole preserve of enthusiastic and knowledgeable collectors. It is now recognized by historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and museum and heritage professionals as a significant resource for exploring the experiences of men, women, and children during and after the First World War, and, indeed, all modern conflict.”
The National World War I Museum in Kansas City has a display of trench art including painted helmets and several ornately embossed shell cases, and the Imperial War Museums in the UK have in their collections a shell case turned into ornate tobacco jar by a Turkish POW in West Asia, and a bullet crucifix that was sold to battlefield tourists. The Museum of the Great War in Péronne, France, not far from the WWI Somme battlefields, even has a teapot transformed by a British soldier into a memento that reads “Souvenir of the Somme,” while the Hooge Crater Museum dedicated to WWI in Belgium has a whole trophy room of trench art made from shell cases.
You might expect lots of bombastic, patriotic imagery in trench art, but it actually tended to be the opposite. As Saunders wrote in his trench art book:
“It is one of the ironies of metal trench art, and decorated shell cases in particular, that most were decorated with pastoral motifs such as flowers, leaves, and romanticized images of women typical of the Art Nouveau style which had flourished since the 1890s.”
Most of it has a surprising elegance, and while it may not have been the intention of the soldiers, it gives an odd reminder that these weapons are in the end just materials, and can by human hands can be formed into both instruments of death and objects of beauty.
Trench art didn’t start and end with World War I, and there are examples throughout the history of war of soldiers and those caught in conflict creating art in response to the destruction. However, World War I did have a uniquely wasteful war, both in life and in the sheer amount of materials used to annihilate those lives. The soft metal that littered No Man’s Land between the dank trenches was turned into dark souvenirs, where although you can meld a shell case into a flower vase, it’s still in the end a vessel that once held only obliteration. Nevertheless, trench art was also a small trophy of survival, a physical connection to the battlefield after the shells ceased to fall.