Home History Trench Art – Soldiers as Artists

Trench Art – Soldiers as Artists

by Derrick James
Canadian soldiers in trench

Canadian soldiers in the trenches.

What is trench art?

shell casing trench art
Trench art made from a shell casing. (Public domain.)

Trench art is a fascinating thing. Art from war. Beauty from the battlefield. Sculptures from combat.

This is artwork by soldiers, prisoners of war, and people living in conflict zones where they take the very objects of war itself and transform them into works of art.

While some might dismiss trench art as curious pieces of junk, others–myself included–see it as something much more, because in the midst of death and destruction, those closest to the conflict, those most pained by war’s effects, turn an artistic eye toward the very material items causing so much pain.

Imagining the time and place of the artist working on his or her piece adds an entirely different level of depth to this art that you won’t find from a sculptor working in a studio or a painter standing along a beach painting a sunset.

Much of the trench art you’ll find on sites like eBay (people collect this stuff, of course) is from World Wars I and II. While trench art is most commonly associated with World War I, as this is when it seemed most prolific, it spans many wars. Trench art exists all the way back from the Napoleonic Wars to today.

Because the byproducts of war were considered government property, the artists themselves rarely signed their creation, leaving a large body of anonymous artwork.

World War I helmet trench art

World War I trench helmet on display at an exhibit. (Public domain.)

mess kit with etching
A World War I mess kit with etching on display at an exhibit. (Public domain.)

While “trench” art brings about images of mud-covered soldiers carving in European trenches, soldiers made their art on the front line, behind the lines, and anywhere in between. The practice most likely originated out of soldiers’ idle time as way to pass the long hours awaiting orders, and perhaps to as a means to occupy their minds with something other than the issues at hand.

Combat Craftsmanship

These art objects were made out of any war refuse, such as spent bullet casings, pieces of downed planes, shrapnel – anything!

Artillery shell casings are probably the most commonly used pieces. They would carve the casings themselves, turn them into ashtrays, or make lamps. The casings could also be cut up and the brass used to construct model airplanes, wind chimes, bracelets, religious symbols — virtually anything. The soldiers were limited only by their imagination.

shell casing for art

Pile of empty artillery shells ready to be turned into art. (Public domain.)

The emergence of this art by idle soldiers only makes sense. When bored, one is forced to find a way to occupy the mind, and if you’re sitting around waiting for hours on end, surrounded by “stuff,” at what point do you pick something up and start carving into it?

french shell casing art

Shell casings with the names of two destroyed French villages carved into it. (Public domain.)

Art as Therapy

Whether these artists realized it in the moment or not, the crafting process itself almost certainly channeled their minds toward some therapeutic activity, making them better able to handle the stressors of war. The Foundation of Art and Healing is one of many organizations to have found evidence supporting artistic expression as a positive factor in treating post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans. Trench art likely served the same purpose in the moment itself.

crucifix trench art

Interested in learning more about trench art?

See Jane Kimball’s book Trench Art: An Illustrated History or Nicholas Saunders’ book Trench Art.

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