A persistent human trait is the ability to create beauty out of despair. In periods of war, those caught in the conflict — whether soldiers, civilians or even prisoners of war — may turn to a craft to alleviate the stress of battle while hoping to return to a sense of normalcy and civility.
While art created in areas of battle, or “trench art,” has been recorded as early as the Napoleonic Wars, the style truly blossomed during the two World Wars. In both wars, the art created was shaped by two critical factors: a lack of materials and a surplus of time.
With traditional art supplies difficult or impossible to obtain, soldiers and civilians would also turn to the refuse of war. A single battle, for example, may produce hundreds or thousands of empty artillery shell casings. This metal, while difficult to work with, provided the craters with a wealth of surplus material. Machinery fragments, loose fabric or threads, war-scarred bone and even stray bullets could be re-worked and combined into works of astonishing art.
The large artillery casings were often turned into vases, ashtrays, pitchers, urns and sealed containers. Coins and spare metal could be repurposed into rings or small pieces of jewelry. Parachute fabric, ruined uniforms and other scrap cloth could be turned into embroidered belts, kerchiefs or lace work.
For many of the crafters, the end result was limited only by the imagination. Given the starts and stops of many large conflicts, trench art was one way to combat long periods of crushing boredom. Simple tools, often handmade or repurposed from other resources, could — given time — produce simply astounding results.
When collecting or assessing trench art, pay close attention to provenance. Many of these pieces are tied to specific conflicts or battles, and their connection to either the maker or location should be very clear with supporting documentation.
Featured image credit: Culture Victoria, Government of Australia