From the winter of 1914 to the spring of 1918, millions of Allied and Central Powers soldiers hunkered down within an estimated 35,000 miles of zigzagging trenches, from the Belgian city of Nieuwpoort on the North Sea to “Kilometre Zero” at the Alsatian-Swiss border. When these soldiers weren’t being exposed to mustard gas, sent into suicidal battles in the deadly no-man’s land between the opposing front lines, or struggling with the dysentery, typhoid fever, lice, trench mouth, and trench foot that were endemic to life in the trenches, they made art. Naturally, the vases, ashtrays, and other decorative objects they fashioned from spent brass artillery shells and other detritus of war were dubbed trench art.
“Every piece of trench art is a military souvenir, but every military souvenir is not necessarily a piece of trench art.”
It’s an inspiring story—we love it when the human spirit triumphs in the face of adversity—but if you’re picturing doughty doughboys painstakingly tapping out intricate designs on empty artillery shells while bullets whistle overhead, your imagination has gotten the better of you. In fact, only a fraction of the trench art produced during what was then called the Great War and what we now know as World War I was made by soldiers in the trenches, and of that fraction, the first wave of Great War trench art was mostly the handiwork of infantrymen who wore the uniforms of France and Belgium rather than the U.S. of A.
The goal of those French and Belgian soldiers had been simple: to create personalized mementos for their loved ones back home, tangible evidence that they were still alive. For these soldiers, spent artillery shells offered a variety of raw materials. The copper “driving” bands at the bases of shells could be transformed into bracelets for wives and sweethearts, while the aluminum fuse caps at the tips of the shells could be cut, carved, and polished into rings. The practice of making and receiving such intimate items proved so popular that by war’s end the French verb for “remember,” “souvenir,” had become a vernacular English noun, largely replacing the less evocative “keepsake.”
When the Americans joined the fight in the spring of 1917, entrepreneurial Allied artisans began producing trench art for their newly arrived brothers in arms, who had more money in their pockets than their European counterparts. Those Americans who arrived at the front with metalworking skills—thanks to the draft, there were many—were soon producing trench art of their own. After the Armistice of 1918, soldiers of all nationalities returned to their home countries weighed down with heavy, metal souvenirs, whether collected from the battlefield, handmade between skirmishes, or purchased for a few francs. Until at least the 1950s, Great War souvenirs made out of actual scraps of the Great War artifacts that still littered the landscape could be purchased near Ypres, Belgium. Site of five major battles, Ypres was and remains a popular destination for Great War tourists wishing to pay their respects to a fallen ancestor and bring home a piece of authentic—or at least authentic-looking—trench art.
Scott Vezeau, a self-described “military guy” who joined the Army in 1984 before leaving the service in 2009 to begin a second career as a dealer of antiques and antique photographs, was drawn to trench art early. “My mom got me into it as a kid,” he says. “From the time I was about 10 years old, I liked military stuff. By 12 or thereabouts, my mom had bought me my first piece of trench art.”
As an adult, Vezeau educated himself about his childhood passion, citing Trench Art: An Illustrated History (Silverpenny Press, 2004) by the late Jane Kimball as one of the genre’s definitive works. “I like the way she talks about trench art,” he says. “For her, World War I was the golden age of trench art because a lot of it was produced during that war, and that’s where it got its name. But Kimball also puts trench art in context, citing examples of soldiers making things going back to ancient times.” In addition, Kimball details variants of trench art such as objects created by prisoners of war (sometimes used as currency for extra rations of cigarettes or food) and items produced by wounded soldiers convalescing in hospitals.
For Kimball and Vezeau, the term “trench art” is fairly broad, although both draw a hard line at souvenirs that have obviously been manufactured from new material, which Kimball succinctly labels as “trench art style.” “I guess from my perspective and that of most of the trench art collectors I deal with, it’s accepted that real trench art has got to come from a piece of military debris or some sort of military part. That’s the starting point of trench art,” Vezeau says.
“The World War I pieces are some of the best I’ve seen.”
Mandating that a piece of trench art can only be called trench art if it’s made from the detritus of war suggests a spiritual dimension to the genre. “I always look at trench art from the perspective of the biblical verse about beating swords into ploughshares,” Vezeau says. “When you take something that once served a military purpose and transform it into either a utilitarian object like an ashtray or a decorative item like a vase, that’s trench art.”
Interestingly, that formulation leaves out a more recent, and highly popular, form of expression by military personnel, Vietnam-era Zippo lighters, which were engraved by U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. “Every piece of trench art is a military souvenir,” Vezeau says, “but every military souvenir is not necessarily a piece of trench art. If a lighter was made out of a bullet, then it’s trench art and a souvenir. But in the case of a Zippo that someone serving in Vietnam engraved, that’s just a souvenir.”
Time can also be a starting point when identifying a piece of trench art, but it’s not as rigid and inflexible as you might think. “I wouldn’t say a particular piece is not an example of trench art because someone made it 30 years after the end of a war,” Vezeau says, “but most collectors prefer items that were made as close to the time period as possible. Some items are labeled ‘Souvenir of the Great War,’ so those were probably made after the war and sold to tourists, but during World War I, soldiers did make stuff during their downtime in the trenches; Kimball’s book has photographs of soldiers sitting in a trench, hammering away at artillery shells. From a collectibility perspective, that’s more desirable than a piece made for the big influx of tourists and families visiting the battlefields after the war, but I would still say the tourist piece is trench art.”
Defining trench art based on authorship can be more problematic. “One item might have a name engraved on it,” Vezeau says, “so that means it could have been made in a trench during the war, but it also could have been made during the occupation period after the war.” Or, it could have been a ready-made piece of trench art in a souvenir shop, awaiting only a name to be engraved before being sold.
Speaking of names, many trench art objects feature the name of a famous battle as a prominent part of their decoration. Normally, that would be a clue to an object’s creation, but without accompanying documentation such as a dated letter describing the creation of said piece, it can be next to impossible to know where and when an object was made, let alone by whom. Complicating the issue of authorship further is the fact that designs for artillery shells were available as paper or zinc stencils, which were sold to infantrymen and entrepreneurs alike. According to Kimball’s book, trench artists often used a dozen or more stencils on a single artillery shell, so while that certainly makes them artisans, that’s not quite the same thing as authorship.
Despite all these caveats, even the manufactured stuff Kimball labels as “trench art style” has its audience. “I really like trench art airplanes from both World War I and World War II,” Vezeau says. “I have some that were probably made in the 1930s from World War I bullets as kids’ toys. I like them, but they’re definitely different from the ones made during World War I. Nowadays, a lot of online sellers offer modern-made trench art jets, things like that. Those pieces don’t interest me in the slightest, but there is a collector market for them.”
For collectors who want the real thing, the most familiar type of trench art is the decorated artillery shell. Hundreds of millions of shells of all sizes were produced during the Great War—between April 1, 1917, and Armistice on November 11, 1918, France alone manufactured almost 150-million rounds of artillery ammunition. Of that output, 75mm artillery shells (the dimension refers to the width of the base, or about 3 inches) were especially common, so much so that soldiers referred to them as “75s”.
The reason for their ubiquity was the Canon de 75 modèle 1897, a 19th-century French-designed field gun that could fire as many as 30 shells a minute and was relatively maneuverable compared to German guns of a similar (77mm) size. By war’s end, 12,000 of these French guns were in the field, which stoked the demand for 75mm ammunition. While the spent brass shells were intended to be melted down and made into new live ones—salvage crews were a key part of military support forces—there were plenty of discards to go around.
The transformation of artillery shells from war debris to something you might want to put on the mantel and fill with flowers did not come easy. After all, the shells were made of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc that has been prized since ancient times precisely because of its hardness. That presented a problem for soldiers in trenches, which is why most examples of objects that were actually created in trenches were not trench art as previously defined but souvenirs made of wood or bone, either of which could be carved with a common pocket knife.
Consider the challenge brass posed to the aspiring trench artist: To begin, the shells had to be heated to make them malleable. Though brass is typically brought to a temperature of around 1,500 °F for forging, a good wood fire will hit 1,100 °F or more, which is hot enough to soften or anneal the material, making it easier to work while simultaneously protecting it from stress cracks caused by constant hammering.
In the trenches, the tools required to etch, engrave, emboss, flute, and flare an artillery shell were primitive. Although ball peen and other types of hammers were common enough, the fine tools on the receiving end of each hammer blow were not. Accordingly, infantrymen regularly resorted to nails, straightened bedsprings, and screwdrivers to produce their designs. Eventually, as trench art took off, Allied soldiers purchased fancy embossing punches in Paris to achieve the designs specified on some of the trench art patterns that were also available for sale.
Embossing was so hard on the artillery shells that in addition to repeated annealing, the shells had to be filled with sand, or even lead, to keep them from cracking or deforming while being worked. Fluting, in which vertical indentations were either pounded into the sides of a shell by hand or formed by running a shell through the unyielding gears of a field gun, was even more brutal. Sometimes a fluted shell was heated and then twisted at the flutes to create a spiral effect. Regardless, if a shell was to feature fluting, that work was completed before the trench artist decorated the rest of the piece via engraving or embossing.
In a class by themselves are the tops or openings of the shells, which were scalloped, rolled, pinched like pie crusts, flared, or cut into shapes like thistles, oak leaves, and French fleur-de-lis. In some cases, the tops of trench art vases were rolled, flared, and then woven with wire, giving these pieces a basket-like appearance.
Given the heat and hardware needed to execute all of these decorative touches, it helped to have access to serious tools, along with the skills to wield them. During World War II, many very fine examples of American trench art were made by Navy Construction Battalions, whose units and personnel were known as Seebees. “They had all sorts of equipment to build beachheads, airfields, and docks, so they had all the tools they needed to make trench art items,” Vezeau says. “I’ve seen a number of postwar yearbooks produced by Seebee units highlighting what they did during the war; in some of those yearbooks, there are photographs of trench art made by the guys in the Seebee repair shops. They would sell their work to sailors and soldiers who were in the area.” Sound familiar?
Still, when it comes to trench art, machine shops and modernity do not necessarily equal higher quality. “The World War I pieces are some of the best I’ve seen,” Vezeau says flatly. “There were a lot more metal workers back then,” he explains. “If I’m a candlestick maker in Belgium in 1914 and I can’t serve in the Army, I don’t have a job. So, I make candlesticks out of artillery shells and sell them to the soldiers who pass by.” Jewelers and watchmakers also pivoted to trench art. “Some of the engravings on the World War I pieces are just phenomenal,” he says.
(To see more of Scott Vezeau’s collection of trench art, antique photographs, and other items, visit his Show & Tell page. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)