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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Lifelike wooden sculptures
Observer-Reporter, August 29th

Clarice Cliff pottery vase, Bizarre shape, My Garden, painted, yellow, multicolor flowers, 5 x 3 1/2 inches, $120. • Royal Bayreuth pitcher, figural, lobster shape, painted, green handle, blue mark, 1900s, 7 inches, $230. • Trench art, paperweight...Read more

Wood carvings grow in popularity, collectibility
Winston-Salem Journal, August 27th

Trench art, paperweight, artillery shell, mounted on stepped base, patinated relief spelter, c. 1918, 2¾ x 5½ x 4¼ inches, $275. Flag, American, 40-star, parade, glazed cotton muslin, inscribed Dr. Crawford, printed, hand-stitched elements, 1889, 84 x...Read more

Bomb squad is called after shell found in a cupboard in Kelvedon Hatch
Brentwood Gazette, August 20th

The all-clear was eventually given just before 3pm. Anne added she was not sure where the shell came from or whether it was from her grandparents or great-grandparents. "My parents had a lot of trench art they used to make out of shells in the trenches...Read more

Kemper to host exhibit on World War I art
The Edwardsville Intelligencer, August 20th

Also included are rare examples of handmade “trench art,” with which soldiers memorialized their units and the battles they fought. These range from painted helmets and an engraved canteen to small objects made from shell casings. Aftermath. The final ...Read more

At Tower of David, ancient stones host modern art ode to Jerusalem
The Times of Israel, August 15th

Parnas used old methods to create new art in “Ammunition Hill,” which contains his contemporary interpretation of Trench Art – historically made by soldiers in World War I with remains of weapons while sitting in the trenches – and Death Masks, based...Read more

'World War I: War of Images, Images of War'
Washington University in St. Louis Newsroom, August 12th

Robert McGiffin, Painted American Helmet, c. 1918. 5 1/8 x 11 1/4 x 12 3/16”. Jane A. Kimball, Trench Art Collection. Hi-res images upon request. War looks different, before you're in it. In 1914, as Europe lumbered optimistically to battle, a proxy...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

Trench art: a story of grace under fire
Sydney Morning Herald, February 26th

Slade, who's based at the Art Gallery of South Australia, envisioned a marriage between historical trench art and contemporary work, and came up with En-Trenched. The exhibition – supported by the federal government's Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture ...Read more