Art from the trenches of World War 1
Trench art, as we know it today, is the most recent form of an age old tradition of soldiers’ expressing themselves artistically while engaged in a theatre of war. This modern example of the soldier’s creativity was mostly crafted from shell or bullet casings, commonly referred to as battle scrap. But the armed forces didn’t consider these piles of brass casings as battle scrap or waste material, quite the contrary, the millions of spent casings were a valuable source of metal to be recycled and forged into new weapons. However, not all scrap was collected for recycling; some was lost in the mud of the trenches, some left behind during retreats across the battle lines, and some was pilfered by soldiers who crafted the spent shells into small souvenirs to be sent home.
Art objects from the trenches of the First World War were generally created during pauses in battle, which could last weeks or months. These extended periods of time offered the soldiers’ ample time to carve, weld, or etch scrap metal into souvenirs. A soldier certainly needed a hobby to occupy his mind during these seemingly endless periods of inaction; the spent shell casings were plentiful so they became his material of choice. It was generally considered by the commanding officers as a necessary form of occupational therapy, and they didn’t mind seeing a reasonable amount of the valuable metal siphoned off to be used by the soldiers; as idle hands and minds were considered far more dangerous than a few hundred pounds of missing brass.
Groups of soldiers often formed small manufacturing cooperatives, similar to knitting circles found in their villages back home. Soldiers with sought after skills, such as etching or welding, were in high demand. While less artistically skilled solders collected and prepared the raw materials and assisted in the polishing the finished pieces of trench art. Although most soldiers took great pride in creating their own souvenirs, an economy of barter developed around the cottage industry of creating trench art. The less artistically inclined soldier’s often traded food or other scarce items for souvenirs to send home.