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Trench Art

What is Trench Art?

Soldiers have always made decorative art or souvenirs during their spare time.

Trench art pieces can be war souvenirs collected by soldiers or non-combatants during a war and  demobilisation, and modified to serve as remembrance.

They can be souvenirs crafted by soldiers during a war, souvenirs made for sale to soldiers by other soldiers or civilians, or souvenirs made by POWs in exchange for food, cigarettes or money. Some are mementoes of the war made by convalescent soldiers.

The final group are post-war souvenirs made for tourists visiting the battlefields and post war souvenirs made by commercial firms in ‘trench art’ style.

The majority of Trench Art pieces in the Royal Lincolnshire Regimental Collection are from World War One.  This is mainly because the stagnant nature of the war meant prolonged entrenchment of troops and a vast supply of material to work with and soldiers to make and trade items.

One of the most common types of Trench Art are known as war souvenirs and include items made from shell fragments, empty shell casings, enemy helmets, buttons, nose caps and driving bands from exploded shells.

The decorative work varies from crudely punched designs to elaborately embossed and engraved pieces made by skilled soldier or civilian artisans.

Themes include floral designs, animals, patriotic figures such as Britannia, unit IDs, battles and military images such as aeroplanes, tanks and artillery pieces and occasionally personal inscriptions.

The universal smoking habit led to the production of lighters, matchbox covers, cigarette cases and ashtrays.

Various objects were produced including models of tanks and planes, letter openers and paper knives, cutlery, napkin rings, inkwells, sugar scoops,  picture frames, regimental badges made into pins & lockets.

Undoubtedly some of the work was actually produced in the trenches.  One example of this is this sphinx carved in relief on white stone (chalk). The following is carved on the reverse:

‘1/5th …..when …the underground trench…. HULLUCH’

The 1/5th battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment were in the Hulloch area from Aug 1917 on and off for a few months.  There is mention in the war diary of the tunnels being manned by men of the 1/5th at this time so it is likely that this was when the piece was carved.

Convalescent Soldier Art

Institutions, such as St Dunstan’s, taught permanently disabled and blinded soldiers to make domestic items such as baskets, brooms and toys in the hope they would be able to support themselves.  The matchbox bears the inscription:

‘In aid of St. Dunstan’s Hospital, Regent Park for soldiers and sailors blinded in the Great War’

Prisoners of war on both sides produced a variety of artefacts for sale to soldiers or civilians in areas near the camps.

Battlefield Tourism & Souvenirs

War correspondents and civilians visited battle sites throughout the war. 

French and Belgian civilians realising there was a rich market for souvenirs began to make souvenirs to sell to eager buyers and commercial shops were set up in popular tourist centres.

Commercial tours of the battlefields commenced very soon after the war and continue today.

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Last updated: 22 February 2011

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