Strictly speaking, trench art is a phrase that describes folk art created by soldiers who were stuck in the trenches during World War I. But trench art as a more broadly defined genre includes all sorts of art objects made during numerous military conflicts going back to the early 1800s, including items produced by prisoners of war.

Leaving aside the question of era, there are several generally accepted categories of trench art. Some of the earliest examples are wooden boxes made by French prisoners captured by the English during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

By World War I, prisoners on both sides of that struggle were engraving and carving everything from spent shell casings to soup bones, transforming them into poignant mementos and useful historical records of the war to end all wars. Some pieces are particular to certain battle zones. For example, Turkish prisoners were known for their beaded snakes.

Those soldiers who did not have the time or tools to engrave spent artillery shells in the trenches often brought them home, where they would be embossed, fluted, and flared. Engravings on canteens and mess kits were probably done in the field, as were paintings on helmets.

Other examples of trench art include letter openers and knives made from bullets and shells; presentation plates hammered and engraved from flattened casings; lighters formed out of enemy belt buckles; and inkwells carefully crafted from fuse caps.

Soldiers recovering from their wounds also made trench art, usually in the form of embroidered badges and belts. Similar pieces made by wives and girlfriends waiting for their loved ones to return home are also considered trench art.

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Recent News: Trench Art

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Paul Laidlaw at Rochdale Antiques Society
Rochdale Online, November 23rd

Paul Laidlaw explained that he had been to the battle fields of the First World War many times and had noted there was a lot of trench art for sale. Although a few of these may have been made in the trenches, it was more likely that they were created...Read more

Advice given on preserving your World War One history
ABC Online (blog), November 22nd

The letter that was written from a hospital bed, the diary kept in the trenches, or the trench art fashioned from things scrounged around them. Some precious materials from the First World War will be on display tomorrow in Emerald - and you also have...Read more

Art by James Gilbert opening Thursday in Manhattan Beach
Easy Reader, November 18th

“I was looking at World War I trench art,” Gilbert explains, “which led me to start looking at pictures from World War II. Something that kept coming up were cathedrals or monuments or frescos: They have these sandbags in front of them, protecting them...Read more

Newcastle showcase for 20 North East First World War commemoration projects
ChronicleLive, November 16th

Belford History Group; Impact object school; Boxes of Delight; TWAM, Durham and Northumberland archives; Wor Life digital projects; North East War Memorials Project; Tynemouth WW1Commemoration Project; Dot to Dot Active Arts CIC trench art project...Read more

Daviess County Museum salutes veterans everyday
Washington Times Herald, November 12th

A large display case shows a collection of trench art, hats and helmets and other military related items. The case is also currently home to the West Point uniform of Mark Haseman and a "tar bucket" parade hat from Arthur Allen. The WWI Army uniform of...Read more

Exploring Judy Waugh's trench art collection
ABC Local, November 10th

Judy is a collector of 'trench art', little objects made by Australian soldiers on the Western Front during World War One. The objects took various forms: tiny replicas of musical instruments; inkwells; snuffboxes paperknives and crucifixes. Soldiers...Read more

Grafton gallery remembering the art of war
Clarence Valley Daily Examiner, November 3rd

Throughout the war artists, general members of the community and many of those who served including official war artists created artworks of the war. The gallery has formed an exhibition of some of this work created with a focus on trench art, objects...Read more

County Durham woman amasses trench art collection over 30 years
ChronicleLive, July 14th

For a project which aims to track down First World War trench art in the North East, Judy Sunter's home is the perfect place to start. Judy, who lives near Stanley in County Durham, has amassed a collection of more than 600 pieces of trench art, much...Read more