The Armed Forces History Museum in Largo, FL has several pieces of trench art dating as far back as World War I. The art is displayed throughout the museum in areas that are reflective of the time period of the piece itself.
The term trench art is generally used to refer to items – many which come from World War II - that were handmade by military soldiers and Prisoners of War, their families and even civilians. The art is generally made from wood, metal, cloth or bone. Quite a number of trench art items can still be found for purchase depending on the material and the time frame searched.
Creations from Soldiers and Prisoners of War
While the history of trench art can be traced back to Napoleonic prisoners of war, the concept gained increased exposure during World War I. During this time frame (1914-1919), soldiers used various mediums of art, including chalk, wood and bone. Some war soldiers used art as a form of therapy as they recuperated from their wounds. Prisoners of war also contributed to the history of trench art, often biding their time and trading their finished product for cigarettes and other luxuries.
From this group of trench art creators, cigarette lighters, matchbox covers and letter openers (sometimes inscribed) would be handcrafted using bullets and scrap metal. Artillery shell cases were often intricately decorated for display purposes and bullet cartridge cases would be used to create finger rings. Tobacco boxes and cigarette cases were also a popular trench art item, often being made using wood and metal. These were not the only articles used in trench art though. Postcards, handkerchiefs and other decorative and beaded items – also considered trench art - were embroidered often by recuperating soldiers.
Civilian Trench Art Creations
Work done by civilians is another example of trench art. This art was made during the war(s) and post war(s) as well. Post-war depressed economies, along with an overabundant supply of war material scattered about and left behind, made for a lucrative business, especially in metal trench art.
Items created in this category would include brass shell casings that would be more intricately shaped and engraved and would often include the name of a town or region, along with a date and inscription that would tag the item as a Souvenir of the Great War. Ashtrays would also emerge either made from - or sometimes decorated with - various shell cases and bullets. Other items worth noting in this category are letter openers and bullet crucifixes.
In later years, trench art made by civilians would continue to evolve into creative items such as clocks, lamps, candle-sticks and even table gongs. Inkwells were also made using grenades or shrapnel.
Trench art, throughout its evolving history, proved to be beneficial to all who took part in its creation. Whether it was a soldier to pass time in the trench, a POW to pass time and then use the item to barter, or a civilian creation to assist in regaining economic stability, the many examples of trench art represent a wide range of creators as well as creations.