Symbols and Memories of the Great War and Beyond

Whenever Great War enthusiasts discuss Trench Art, you can be sure that before long, one of them is going to mention the name of Nick Saunders.

Dr. Nicholas J. Saunders is Lecturer in Material Culture, and British Academy Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, United Kingdom.

His new book, Trench Art: A Brief History and Guide, 1914-1939, (ISBN 0850527937) has just been published by Leo Cooper/Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley, South Yorks, email: It can also be ordered direct from the author at the above address or via the e-mail link at the  very end  of this article.

A website dedicated to Trench Art will be on line soon. It contains summaries of the author's published work on Trench Art, information on work in progress, extracts from and details about his book, forthcoming events of related interest, and original photographs taken from his extensive archive.

I am very grateful to Dr. Saunders for contributing this article to the site - Tom Morgan

As the 20th century fades from view, so the last survivors of the Great War of 1914-1918 pass away. The momentous events of their lives become history, remembered only in books, photographs, and the flickering images of contemporary film. Such is the popularity of all things to do with the First World War that it is difficult to think of a single aspect which has not been discussed, argued about, or endlessly re-interpreted over the last eighty odd years. Yet, one only has to look to see. All around us is evidence of those cataclysmic years and their aftermath - evidence locked up in the meanings and associations of strange objects which have kept their silence till now.

Trench Art is the common though misleading name given to these objects, and which were made in metal, cloth, wood and bone, by soldiers, Prisoners of War, and civilians between 1914 and 1939. These items were once familiar to every soldier and family of the war generation but today they seem to have slipped through the net of history, though not the world of military collectables. Currently, Trench Art is not rare, nor, in its majority, is it locked away in museums. It is ever present, bought and sold by an increasing number of dealers, collectors, and the curious across the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the USA and beyond. Every day, somewhere in the world, Trench Art can be found in flea markets, car-boot sales, militaria fairs, and, as a sign of the times, in cyberspace over the Internet (Fig.1).

Fig.1 - Trench Art in a car boot at a militaria fair
in Southern England (photo © Author)

As time passes, and the Great War for Civilization looms ever larger in our historical consciousness, Trench Art will inevitably become scarcer, and ever more valuable commercially. For reasons outlined here, it seems to me that this process has already begun. For example, many museums - both old and new, national and international - are re-assessing and adding to their Trench Art collections. Yet what do we really know about Trench Art, and how can we begin to unravel the vivid and poignant stories it has kept secret till now ?

What is Trench Art ?

Trench Art is full of contradictions, the term itself evocative but misleading. Yet, the objects it describes are a unique kind of artistic endeavour, rich in symbolism and irony. Trench Art's astonishing variety is a testament to human skills and fortitude under the extreme pressures of industrialized war. Nevertheless, it seems as if every collector, dealer, and museum curator has their own definition of what qualifies as Trench Art. This has been part of Trench Art's problem, a body of objects so wide and diverse that it has defied any attempts to categorize or understand it, and thus has appeared as nothing but a random collection of war curios and ephemera impossible to price or value accurately. Complicating matters further has been the practice of applying the term Trench Art to objects from many different wars without explaining why, and in describing its various kinds under a host of different names, such as 'Soldier Art', 'POW Art', 'Refugee Art', or 'War Trophies'.

One well known book on military collectibles defines Trench Art as First and Second World War objects of metal, cloth, bone and wood, and this is a good start. However, investigating and collecting Trench Art is far more interesting than this definition suggests. There are two key points to be made if we are ever to truly understand these enigmatic objects.

The first is to recognize that Trench Art is more than a name, it is a concept. Thus, we should include objects made by Napoleonic prisoners of war, soldiers in the Crimean, American Civil, Franco-Prussian and Boer wars, as well as items made by those who fought in, or were affected by, virtually every 20th century conflict worldwide. Trench Art may have taken its name from the First World War, but it existed before 1914, and is still made today. In order to say anything meaningful about Trench Art a deliberately broad working definition is needed. In my research, and for reasons which will become clear, I have adopted the following: Trench Art is

"any object made by any person from any material, as long as it and they are associated in time or space with armed conflict or its consequences."

German 100mm shell, 1915, with King Albert of the Belgians
(photo © Author)

The second point is to avoid the easy listing of similar objects or forms and focus instead on who made them, where, when, how, and why ? This simple but crucial change of emphasis establishes the historical significance of Trench Art by relating objects to people and events. It also explains why, for over 80 years (and excepting the odd exhibition pamphlet), no book on Great War Trench Art has ever been published. As every piece of Trench Art is unique, those who may have attempted a book quickly discovered that they ended up with chapters which were little more than collections of miscellaneous photographs of, let's say, decorated artillery shell cases, followed by cigarette lighters, then matchbox covers, and perhaps carved-wood objects. Unable to embrace the infinite variety of Trench Art, this approach could never make a viable book as it relied totally on unconnected and uncontextualized photographic images, and said precious little of historical or human interest beyond obvious clichés such as "War is Hell, but just look at what the soldiers made!"

Today, much more can be said about Trench Art. As an anthropologist and archaeologist, I believe it is possible to identify a number of types, each of which tells a story about the conditions of their manufacture and the people involved. Trench Art can no longer be dismissed as the curious junk of war.

In order to be able to say something interesting and useful about the bewildering variety of Trench Art it is necessary to organize ideas as well as the objects. The result is the classification outlined below, and described in detail in my book, Trench Art: A Brief History and Guide, 1914-1939 (Leo Cooper/Pen and Sword Books, February 2001). It applies specifically to Trench Art of the Great War and its aftermath (1914-1939), though is generally applicable to all wars of the last two hundred years, as I show in a forthcoming second book (1). This classification is based on Trench Art found in museums, private collections, and militaria fairs around the world. It's aim is to explore Trench Art's human and cultural dimensions as well as to provide a framework for identifying, assessing, and valuing the objects themselves.

Classifying Trench Art

For the purposes of this article, there are three main kinds of Great War Trench Art, though numerous sub-categories also exist. While each category contains different objects, each one also includes items which may appear similar to those from other categories. As already mentioned, what differentiates them is not similarity of shape, form, function, or manufacturing technique, but the social and personal conditions of those who made them. In other words, where shapes are identical, context is everything.

Category 1: Soldiers, 1914-1919

Trench Art made by soldiers, in the front-line and behind-the-lines, is, perhaps surprisingly, the smallest category quantitatively speaking, due mainly to the period of manufacture being restricted to five years. Nevertheless, this category displays the greatest variety of shapes.

Many soldiers carved in chalk, wood, or bone in the trenches, but conditions under fire were always thought to have precluded manufacture of anything other than the crudest metal items. Contemporary letters tell a different story. One relates how "The lads in the trenches while away the flat time by fashioning rings, crosses, and pendants out of bullets and the softer parts of shells." (2) (Fig.2).

Fig.2 French artilleryman fashioning a Trench Art finger-ring near the front line
(photo © Author)

Another tells how a British soldier "bought a transfer from a Belgian soldier for 5 woodbines ... then transferred the design to the shell with a bent nail ..." (3). Mainly, however, category 1 objects were made in safer rear areas by blacksmiths, the Royal Engineers, and service personnel of various regiments, including the Chinese Labour Corps who specialised in making Trench Art souvenirs. Many items were produced 'on spec', while others were made to order.

Some Trench Art makers created their works with personal perhaps spiritual intent, with the finished objects embodying pieces of war materiél which recalled life and death experiences. Most records of these are gone but those belonging to Sapper S.K. Pearl of the Australian 5th Field Company Engineers gives a glimpse of what we have lost. In making a Trench Art clock, Pearl relates how it was made in Ieper (Ypres) in March 1918, how the base is two 4.5 inch howitzer shell cases picked up at Le Bizet (near Armentières) on Christmas Day 1917, how the arms are detonator wells of rifle-grenades and nose-caps, the hands come from a gun-cotton case, the Rising Sun badge from a mate killed at Noreuil, and a button from his own greatcoat. In many ways, this object is a three dimensional autobiography of Pearl's wartime experiences.

Equally resonant with personal memories were objects made in Prisoner of War camps, such as Ruhleben in Germany, and numerous camps in Britain. Also, many maimed and wounded soldiers made textile and wood objects as therapy in hospitals and convalescent homes. All are Trench Art in the definition adopted above, though equally, all have different stories to tell.

Typical examples of category 1 items include:

i/ Cigarette lighters and matchbox covers made from bullets and scrap metal.

ii/ Letter openers made from bullets and scrap, sometimes

inscribed, and often with badges attached. (Fig. 3).

iii/ Decorated artillery shell cases. (Fig.4).

iv/ Tobacco boxes and cigarette cases of wood and metal.

vi/ Military caps made from the base of shells.

vii/ Finger rings and pen/pencils made from bullet cartridge cases.

viii/Miscellaneous carved wood objects.

ix/ Miscellaneous objects carved from bone, stone and chalk. (Fig.5).

x/ Miscellaneous embroidered and beaded objects, such as postcards, handkerchiefs decorative cushions.

Fig. 3 - three letter-openers made from scrap brass with bullet cartridge handles.
(photo © Author)

Fig. 4 - pair of "corsetted" French
75mm artillery shells

(photo © "In Flanders Fields" Museum, Ieper, Belgium)

Fig. 5 - carved and painted on-bone made by German soldiersor prisoner of war
(photo © Author)

There were also more elaborate items, such as an officer's 'swagger stick' artfully made from bullets, and miniature biplanes and tanks produced from bullet cartridges and metal scrap - sometimes from the aluminium of downed enemy aircraft or Zeppelins. Many objects were personalised, engraved with a man's name, and occasionally rank and regiment. Religious items too were made, such as silver-plated shells adorned with a soldered-on cross, and distinctive bullet-crucifixes.

The terrible conditions of combat during the Great War and their effect on the predominantly civilian 'Kitchener's Army' made a lasting impression. Sergeant H.E. May observed in the Ypres salient in 1917, a scene of 'indescribable horror, with heads, legs, arms, trunks, pieces of rotting flesh, and skulls that grinned hideously laying about in hopeless riot.' (4) Artillery barrages defined the Great War and millions of shells were fired, each inscribed with a man's name in the soldier's imagination. On both sides, soldiers lived in landscapes whose terrible sights included an inexhaustible supply of raw materials for metal Trench Art - a fact which guaranteed the finished objects themselves would be deeply ambiguous.

Interestingly, for the British and Belgian soldiers, and possibly the French and Germans as well, empty artillery shell cases remained the property of the state, and were supposed to be collected into dumps and then re-filled in munitions factories for later re-use. Technically speaking, making Trench Art from these materials was illegal, and for this reason most of the decorated artillery shell cases made during the war were not signed with their maker's name.

Category 2: Civilians, 1914-1939

Made by civilians during the war and inter-war periods, category 2 was the largest in terms of overall quantity of items produced. Wartime and post-war economic deprivation together with vast quantities of war materiél strewn over the land combined to produce a thriving industry especially in metal Trench Art.

This category is divided into two sub-categories a and b. In both, identical forms were made by the same people with the same techniques. Except where a piece was dated, the difference lay not in materials or shapes, but in the changing circumstances of manufacture and sale associated with the move from war to peace. Sub-category 2a items were sold to Allied and German soldiers during the war, while sub-category 2b was sold to war widows, pilgrims, and battlefield tourists between 1919 and 1939. Clearly, each would possess different meanings for the maker and buyer despite often being visually identical.

Fig. 6 - Post-war "Bullet-Crucifix made from
 .303 bullet cartridges and mounted on a tripod of German Mauser bullets. 

(photo © Author)

Typical examples of category 2 items include:

i/ Intricately shaped, and usually elaborately engraved brass shell cases, inscribed, variously, with the name of a town and/or region, a date, and such tags as "Souvenir of the Great War".

ii/ Ashtrays made from or decorated with shell cases and bullet

cartridges, sometimes inscribed, and often more elaborate than category 1 examples.

iii/ Letter openers, often inscribed and sometimes more elaborate than category 1 examples.

iv/ Bullet-crucifixes made of cartidges and often commercially available Christ figures. (Fig.6)

v/ Small decorated shell cases often mounted on a tripod of bullets.

Sub-category 2a: 1914-1918

During the war, civilian manufacture of Trench Art quickly became a cottage industry, sold to Allied and German armies. French and Belgian civilians on both sides of the front-line made and sold Trench Art to all soldiers. A famous example is the brass matchbox cover which depicted the typical spiked German (pickelhaube) helmet on one side, the inscription 'Gott Mit Uns' on the other, and 'Fabrique en France' inscribed on the spine.

Sub-category 2b: 1919-1939
The post-war years saw continuing hardship for returning refugees. Villages, towns and farms were devastated, and a primarily agricultural landscape rendered useless (and dangerous) by saturation shelling. In the Ypres salient, up to five unexploded shells could be found in one square metre, and some 5000 kilos of shrapnel and detonators per hectare. As more raw materials for metal Trench Art became available through de-mining, the soldiers returned home and were replaced as a market for Trench Art by battlefield pilgrims and tourists. Those who once made and sold Trench Art to soldiers now sold often identical items to the bereaved widows, sweethearts and relatives. Trench Art bought by battlefield pilgrims was often the only material reminder of the dead.

Many Trench Art objects found their way back to Britain (as well as Commonwealth and various European countries) during this time as heart rending souvenirs, where they were displayed in the hallway, on a living room mantelpiece or bedroom dresser, ensuring that memories of loved ones were only ever a glance away. Ironically, these were often polished obsessively, an act which probably had therapuetic effects for the bereaved, but which almost erased any original decoration or inscription.

Trench Art shell - Windmill
(photo © Author)

Doubly ironic is that these most poignant and valued examples of metal Trench Art (usually brass artillery shells) today are sold more cheaply than other better preserved items. This clear divergence between contemporary emotional and current commercial values may well be re-assessed as museums begin to take Trench Art more seriously and the commercial market for such items matures.

Category 3: Civilians, 1918?-1939?

Category 3 is the most clearly defined of the three kinds of Great War Trench Art, and are sometimes referred to as 'Mounted War Trophies'. These items were made in Britain (though possibly elsewhere also) towards the end of the war, but mainly after 1918. They were composed of the raw materials of war brought back as souvenirs and mementoes by returning soldiers. Manufacture was undertaken commercially by various British firms, one of which, the Army and Navy Store, produced advertisements offering to personalise soldiers' souvenirs and memorabilia of war by creating distinctive designs and mounting them on an ebonised base (Fig.7).

Fig. 7 - Army and Navy Stores advertisement
for the mounting of "War Trophies"

Typical examples of category 3 items include:

i/ Clocks made from shells and bullets.

ii/ Lamps and candle-sticks from shells and bullets.

iii/ Inkwells, made from grenades and/or shrapnel.

iv/ Simple mounted shrapnel fragments.

v/ Various size 'cups' made from shell parts.

vi/ 'Table gongs' made from different size shell cases suspended from an ornate frame.

Almost all these objects were designed for the home and the peacetime lives of returning soldiers - the 'swords into ploughshares' philosophy - a phrase sometimes inscribed on the finished object. In all probability they functioned as visual reminders of wartime experiences - either as private memories or collective talking points for survivors. Occasionally they were ambiguous, as with the table gongs that were such a feature of Victorian and Edwardian middle class life. Perhaps inspired by these civilian types, and maybe also by earlier Boer War Trench Art examples, shell case gongs were used in the trenches as alarms for gas attacks. Such objects highlight the ambiguity of so much metal Trench Art where ordnance made for killing was transformed first into life-saving items, then into peacetime household ornaments announcing mealtimes.

The Lost Worlds of Trench Art

It can be seen from this brief outline that by changing focus away from listing items of similar shape and towards the makers and their circumstances, Great War Trench Art can be brought into the realm of history. Together with memorials, cenotaphs, war cemeteries, battlefield pilgrimages and remembrance ceremonies, Trench Art objects were part of a post-war world of memories and associations. A war orphan would regard 'Daddy's shell' in quite a different way than an old soldier, a bereaved widow, or the returning refugees who made them in vast quantities along the old Western Front, and elsewhere, between 1919 and 1939. However, the story does not end with the advent of the Second World War. This second conflict produced its own Trench Art (not covered here) and changed forever the status of objects from the earlier Great War.

From 1945 onwards, Great War Trench Art's status as poignant souvenirs and ornaments for the homes of the bereaved and old soldiers went into decline. Increasingly seen as anachronistic ephemera hardly worthy of mention let alone study, many items were destroyed or melted down for scrap between 1945 and the mid-1960s. Doubtless many masterpieces were lost at this time. It was only with increasing interest in the Great War and burgeoning numbers of battlefield tourists from the mid 1960s onwards that Great War Trench Art began to be seriously collected and to appear in large quantities in militaria shops and fairs. Today, Trench Art is still frequently encountered though markedly less so than even a few years ago.

Collecting Trench Art

The problems for those interested in collecting and dealing in Trench Art are clear. No one has ever studied or classified the dazzling array of objects in their own right, and thus it has been impossible to establish their historical and social importance. Unlike the trade in firearms or edged weapons, for example, whose market value reflects a combination of an item's historical significance as well as its scarcity and condition, Trench Art has languished in limbo for the best part of a century.

Trench Art on display at the Musee des Abris, Albert, Somme, 2001
(photo © Author)

Collectors and dealers buy and sell on the basis of an item's condition, unusual character, or because they themselves have an interest in militaria in general, or specifically in ordnance, or memorabilia associated with aviation, naval history, or a specific regiment. Collectors are often interested in acquiring an unusual addition to their specialized collections rather than collecting Trench Art as such - though there are exceptions. In other words, the Trench Art market is a fragmented and volatile place, prey to widely different and overlapping spheres of collecting. This volatility is, to a considerable degree, a consequence of the fact that, common as these items may at first appear, little has been known about them and, until now, nothing of historical importance published.

Treating these items seriously, establishing their significance, and placing them in the flow of history has been a major aim of my research into Trench Art. At the same time, however, I am aware that this also provides a long awaited base-line for commercial valuations and a re-invigorated market. Nevertheless, the point of my work has been to show that such objects are not the empty and curious ephemera of war, but rather full of associations to the people who made or used it, and to the tumultuous times in which they lived.

Today, tens of thousands of people worldwide, collect or deal in one kind of Trench Art or another (and from most of the 19th and 20th centuries' many wars). It is certain that this will increase in the future as Trench Art becomes scarcer and the 'historical premium' added by research combine to push prices higher. However, there is one astonishing, if obvious fact, which could lead to an even greater explosion of interest.

There can be few kinds of historical objects which millions of people have in their homes - Trench Art is one, perhaps the only one. Across the world, in living rooms and hallways, though more likely stored in attics and garages, are the strange and curious objects which a grandfather or an uncle bequeathed to children and grandchildren and which attached itself to the family. Most often shunned as an ornament, it lurks in the recesses of memory as well as the home. If this vast number of people became aware of the living history and rising value of these objects - perhaps as part of the burgeoning interest in tracing family history - then the market for Trench Art would be transformed. If this comes to pass it is reassuring to think that a long silent voice from an almost forgotten generation will be heard once again.


1/ Nicholas J. Saunders. Trench Art: Materialities and Memories of War. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

2/ Quotation from letter by J. Laws in the 'The Liddle Collection', University of Leeds.

3/ Quotation from letter in the Imperial War Museum, 131/89 CUP Shelf 1.

4/ H.E. May. 1997. 'In a Highland Regiment, 1917-1918'. In, J.E. Lewis (Introd.), True World War 1 Stories: Sixty Personal Narratives of the War, p 200. London: Robinson Publishing.


Degaast, M.G. 1917. La bijouterie des tranchées. Almanach Illustré du Petit Parisien, pp 99-104.

Jones, B., and Howells, B. 1972. Popular Arts of the First World War. London: Studio Vista.

R.W. 1915. Trench Trinkets: Souvenirs soldiers make from German shells. First Anniversary of the War Special Number; 5 August 1915. The War Budget IV, No. 12, p 361.

Saunders, N.J. 2000. Bodies of metal, shells of memory: 'Trench Art' and the Great War Re-cycled. Journal of Material Culture, Vol 5, No. 1, pp 43-67.

Saunders, N.J. 2000. Memories of Metal: Trench Art, a lost resource of the Great War. Stand To! The Journal of the Western Front Association, Vol 58, April, pp 14-17.

Saunders, N.J. 2001c. Apprehending Memory: Material Culture and War, 1919-1939. In, Peter H. Liddle and Hugh Cecil (eds), Lightning Strikes Twice: Personal Experiences of two World Wars: London: HarperCollins.

Saunders, N.J. 2001. Trench Art: A Brief History and Guide, 1914-1939. Barnsley: Leo Cooper.

Wilkinson, F. 1976. Collecting Military Antiques. London: Bracken Books.

For a direct link to the author of this article,
email Nick Saunders.

Copyright © Nick Saunders, January, 2001.

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