Artists in War: The Trench Art - History Key

Artists in War: The Trench Art

War is hell in every way or form, even when it is “necessary”, even for the winners. Having this clear fact, and also having tons of images depicting some of the worst war situations and solutions, we will try to approach some different shades related to war, but still caused by it.

There are many items related to war, a very generous merchandising sector full with all sorts of products more or less genuine, more or less useful or important. But among all those categories, there is a special sector, one directly related to the soldier’s life in the trenches and on the frontline: the Trench Art.

What is more exactly the Trench Art?

Let’s start with a generic description of the term, one you would find easily:

“Trench art is any decorative item made by soldiers, prisoners of war, or civilians where the manufacturer 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.” – New Zealand Army Museum

We think that the one above would be a neat description, but we should add that the Trench Art practice has its origins also in boredom, in the long periods of time spent waiting for something, in a war context.

 

“Playboy cover”
“Playboy cover”

We must have in mind that usually, during a “tour”, a soldier gathered around 2 weeks of effective fighting, the rest of the time was spent in long waiting periods, or traveling between locations.

Usually, that was the right context for the trench-art. Periods in which the soldier was able to work on something, being alone with his own thoughts. If you will search for some examples of trench-art, you will probably notice that most of the times the personal objects were modified, like cups, boilers, spoons, helmets and so on.

Part of a Soviet spoon from WW2
Part of a Soviet spoon from WW2

Some are reporting the owners names, so they will not be lost or confused, but many of them are engraved with the names of the relatives from home, wives, and mothers, others with specific preferences of the soldier (a horse or a boat, the sea or some trees) or with political signs, which stands for the cause of the soldier’s presence at war.

 

We can identify four main categories related to the Trench-Art phenomenon

1. Items made by soldiers, on the battlefield

If you could have any confirmation or warranty that an object was modified or made by a soldier during his time on a battlefield, in our opinion that would be the most genuine trench-art item that someone could obtain.

Many little objects (rings, lighters) were made in the trenches, and wounded soldiers realized many others during their recovery time.

2. Items made by Prisoners of War

A slightly different situation, considering that a POW would be located outside the combat zone, and for sure away from the trenches. But many trench-art works were related to POWs, also considering that they had plenty of time for such craft works, during their incarceration.

The POW used very limited resources in order to obtain a memento of his time in captivity, very often objects reporting the years spent in a lager or even caricatures related to the camp’s guardians, or even easier: women.

Italian boiler with woman drawing
Italian boiler with woman drawing

 

3. Items made by civilians

This would probably be the largest sector related to trench-art: civilians who use items coming from the battlefields, in order to create a trench-art piece. In this case, the situation is somehow mixed, because a soldier on the battlefield or in a POW camp doesn’t make the craftwork, but by a civilian who still use genuine items related to war.

Even if this practice could be somehow related to the trench-art, we consider that this would be far away from the original concept and intention of such phenomenon.

4. Commercial Items

This should be the last step, and also the one to avoid if you are looking for some genuine items and situations to see and understand. This is the zone of mass production and reproduction, where everything is or could be manufactured in order to satisfy a market request.

We don’t judge this practice, but we also don’t encourage it.

We strongly believe that the most important items are the ones coming from the direct soldier’s experience on the battlefield. Items born from site-specific needs or just out of boredom or desire to remember something, someone.

Whistle made out from an empty cartridge
Whistle made out from an empty cartridge © Romanian Military Archeology

Each personalized objects gain another kind of importance, both historical and personal, intimate. If at the beginning was a simple anonymous bowler, after an intervention it became a unique item, capable of telling multiple stories, with several endings.

Many times a simple drawing or engraving can tell much more than expected. You will be able to find out what was the object journey, from a country to another, from a battlefield to a POW camp or a cemetery.

This is why the Trench-Art is a very important aspect related to the war routine because it would highlight the fact that even in the worst situations, something humans remain in us.

Bowler cover reporting the drawing of the Don River together with the date ''DON 1942''
Bowler cover reporting the drawing of the Don River together with the date ”DON 1942”

Special thanks to Michele Bressan.

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