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Trench art


Trench art is any decorative item made by soldiers, prisoners of war, or civilians where the manufacture is directly linked to armed conflict or its consequences. It offers an insight not only to their feelings and emotions about the war, but also their surroundings and the materials they had available to them.

Not limited to the World Wars, the history of trench art spans conflicts from the Napoleonic Wars to the present day. Although the practice flourished during World War I, the term 'trench art' is also used to describe souvenirs manufactured by service personnel during World War II. Some items manufactured by soldiers, prisoners of war or civilians during earlier conflicts have been retrospectively described as trench art.

Wounded soldiers were encouraged to work at crafts as part of their recuperation, with embroidery and simple forms of woodwork being common. Again from With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, George Coppard recalls that, while recuperating from wounds at a private house in Birkenhead, "one kind old lady brought a supply of coloured silks and canvas and instructed us in the art of embroidery. A sampler which I produced under her guidance so pleased her that she had it framed for me."

Reference to POW work is made in the recollections of A B Baker, W.A.A.C., contained in the book Everyman at War, published by Purdom in 1930: "Part of my work had to do with prisoners quartered in a camp near to our own. Those Germans were friendly men. They were clever with their hands, and would give me little carvings which they had made."

In 1914, the US set up the Commission for Relief in Belgium, headed by Herbert Hoover. It shipped staple foodstuffs, mainly flour, in the printed cotton flour sacks typical of the period. As thanks, the Belgians would embroider and paint in the designs, elaborating them with dates and flags and send them back to the US. Examples of these are now in the Herbert Hoover Museum, but some were sold to soldiers in Paris or given as gifts.

At war's end, when civilians began to reclaim their shattered communities, a new market appeared in the form of pilgrims and tourists. Over the ensuing twenty years mountains of discarded debris, shell casings, and castoff equipment were slowly recycled, with mass-produced town crest motifs being stuck onto bullets, shell casings, fuse caps, and other paraphernalia to be sold to tourists.

Ship breaking, particularly if the ship had been involved in significant events such as the Battle of Jutland, resulted in much of the wood from the ship being turned into miniature barrels, letter racks, and boxes, with small brass plaques attached announcing, for example, "Made of teak from HMS Shipsname, which fought at the Battle of Jutland".

Missouri Civil War Museum