Jane Kimball's book, Trench Art: An Illustrated History, was a finalist for the the 2005 Independent Publishers Book award and is available for purchase through Atlas Books or Amazon.
See The Atlas Books website for details.

Trench Art of the Great War
And Related Souvenirs

Jane A. Kimball 1989, 2005

Cruel destroyers of humans and landscapes
Transformed into objects of beauty,
Providing a remembrance of comrades lost
And souvenirs for those who lived to tell their tales.


Soldiers have always made decorative or souvenir objects in their spare time. During the Napoleonic Wars, French prisoners of war interned in British prison camps created a variety of elaborate boxes, models and other pieces made from soup bones as well as marquetry boxes and similar items using plaited straw. The Crimean War produced interesting souvenirs such as inkwells made from cannon balls. Soldiers in the American Civil War decorated powder horns, canteens and snuffboxes with personal and patriotic engravings and fabricated game pieces from bone and spent bullets. Sailors also have rich traditions of creating scrimshaw and needlework pieces.

Projectiles with brass casings, first produced in 1857, replaced cannon balls and other artillery ammunition as the century progressed. The Spanish-American War and the Boer War were the first wars in which this type of ammunition was widely used. Typical shell casing souvenirs from this period were engraved with the details of battles or inscribed as souvenir of the war or merely shaped into vases to be kept as decorative mementoes.

Illustration of Decorated
Austrian 104 mm shell, 21 1/2"
tall. Snake climbing up oak
tree trunk and nibbling an
acorn. The top of
the shell is folded over to
represent leaves.

Design in high relief with
embossed background. Shell
dated 1916 on headstamp.

The First World War, The Great War, The War to End All Wars or The War for Civilization as it was variously called, evolved into a stagnant form of trench warfareafter the initial German invasion into Belgium in 1914. Prolonged entrenchment of troops and a vast supply of the detritus of war provided an ever-expanding canvas for the talents of soldier-artists. Decorated objects made from 1914 throughout the post-war period are generally referred to as trench art.

Trench art is a highly evocative term conjuring up the image of a mud-spattered soldier in a soggy trench hammering out a souvenir for a loved one at home while dodging bullets and artillery shells. This is an appealing but very false conception of the reality of this art form. A few types of trench art (finger rings made from melted down aluminum are a good example) could be made easily in a trench during lulls in the fighting, but the hammering involved in making many trench art pieces would have been greeted with unwelcome hostile fire from the enemy. Trench art items made during the war were in fact created at a distance from the front line trenches either by soldiers at rest behind the front lines, by skilled artisans among the civilian population, by prisoners of war, or by soldiers convalescing from wounds as handicraft therapy.

Pieces described as trench art have the following distinctly different origins:

  1. War souvenirs collected by soldiers or non-combatants during the war and during the demobilization period and modified in some way to serve as a remembrance of the war.
  2. Souvenirs crafted by soldiers during the war.
  3. Souvenirs made for sale to soldiers by other soldiers or civilians during the war.
  4. Souvenirs made by prisoners of war in exchange for food, cigarettes or money.
  5. Mementoes of the war made by convalescent soldiers.
  6. Post-war souvenirs made for tourists visiting the battlefields.
  7. Post-war souvenirs made by commercial firms in trench-art style.

Souvenir 'Shrapnel'
Hate Belt
Embroidered Postcard
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War souvenirs collected by soldiers and non-combatants on the Western Front included bits of shell fragments, empty shell casings, enemy helmets and other equipment, military buttons (collections of which were frequently made into what are popularly called hate belts), and nose caps and driving bands from exploded shells. Many of these were mounted after the war into interesting remembrance pieces either by the soldier himself or by commercial firms that offered this service. Thousands of embroidered postcards were also sent home from France to loved ones.


Geometric Vase
Floral Vases
Grape Vase
Bird and Coyote
Large Floral Shell
Larger Floral Shell
Argonne Vase
Western Front
Scarab Beetle
Gorizia Vases
Statue of Liberty
Welsh Dragon
French Cockerel

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Decorated shell casings are a main focus of interest among many collectors of trench art. Casings from artillery shells of several different calibers casings for the standard artillery field pieces: the French and American 75mm, German 77mm, or British 18 pounder guns and the larger 105mm, 155mm and 210mm artillery pieces] and several sizes of naval shells [1pdr, 3pdr, 6pdr] were the most common ones used for making this kind of trench art.

Many of the 75m and 77mm shells were sent or brought home for use as flower vases. The decorative work on these pieces varies widely from crudely punched designs made by amateur soldier-artists to elaborately embossed and engraved pieces made by skilled soldier or civilian artisans. Popular themes included floral designs, animals, patriotic figures, unit identifications, battles and various military images such as aeroplanes, tanks, and artillery pieces. Other shells bear personal inscriptions to loved ones. Some give detailed accounts of a soldiers service. The smaller 37mm shell casings were used to produce many of the same decorative effects. They fitted easily into a pocket or kit bag and were much more transportable than the larger shells.

The passage of time has obscured the provenance of many of these pieces forever. As they are dredged from basements and attics, relics of a long forgotten war, and sold or consigned to second hand or antique shops or sold at estate sales, objects are forced to speak for themselves. Some pieces, with specific names, units, battles and dates are eloquent. . .most have drifted so far from their original moorings that it is not possible to determine into which of the above tidy categories they properly fit.

Letter Openers
Sugar Scoop
Dinner Gong
Picture Frame
Holy Water Font
Zeppelin Pendant
Finger Ring
Tank Inkwell

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Many other types of trench art were made by soldiers, civilians, and prisoners of war during the war and afterwards. Some artists used brass from shell casings modified in a number of ways; others used cartridge clips, shell fragments, damaged wooden propeller blades, and rifle cartridges to produce artistic souvenirs. Artillery shell projectiles provided another site for painted designs, often very beautiful and elaborate. The universal smoking habit of soldiers made tobacco humidors, lighters, match boxes covers or match safes, cigarette cases, ashtrays and snuff boxes popular items for artistic conversions from shell casings and cartridge clips.

Hand-crafted models are splendid examples of 'soldier art'. Aeroplanes and tanks were popular subjects; less common are models of artillery pieces and submarines.

Letter openers or paper knives, often made in a scimitar style from pieces of flat brass soldered to cartridge casings, were a popular 'trench art' item, and an amazing number of these have survived. The more interesting ones of this type are engraved with the names of battles or individuals. Other letter openers utilized copper driving bands or shell fragments to create souvenir letter openers. Napkin rings, another common domestic item, were made from scrap brass and less commonly from aluminum salvaged from crashed zeppelins. Coal scuttles and dinner gongs, mainstays of most households at the time, were replicated in trench art, often with intricate engraving. Models of coal scuttles are sometimes referred to as sugar scoops or in the smaller 37mm size as salt scoops. Picture frames were made from scrap brass or wood. Wooden aeroplane propellers provided raw material for picture frames and clocks. Aluminum from canteens or mess kits was transformed into a variety of objects unrelated to sordid everyday warfare. Trench art finger rings were produced in quantity from brass, aluminum or from silver coins. Regimental badges made into pins and lockets, often called 'sweetheart jewelry' were made by soldiers and commercial firms to confirm the bond between soldiers at the front and their loved ones at home.


Mess Kit
Painted Helmet
Painted Helmet 2

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Aluminum mess kits and canteens provided soldiers with a medium easily worked with a penknife or a nail. Some pieces are merely engraved with the soldier's name and unit number; others record various levels of detail including the names of ships on which he sailed, ports at which he embarked and disembarked, camps at which he was stationed and battles in which he fought. More rarely, these practical items in everyday use were engraved with a variety of patriotic and other images transforming them into beautiful decorative objects.

The soldier's 'tin hat' was another site for artistic endeavor. Hand-painted helmets vary from those with divisional, regimental or unit insignia to a variety of 'camouflage' designs to beautiful 'souvenir' helmets embodying a variety of military and patriotic images and dates and details of service. American helmets with painted insignia date from the army of occupation in Germany, and many doughboys commissioned talented artists to paint elaborate designs on their helmets to take home as souvenirs. German helmets painted with camouflage patterns are often found. Painted souvenir British helmets are more rare.

Gas mask carriers were sometimes embroidered or marked with pen or pencil with imaginative inscriptions such as "I Need Thee Every Hour", "War Bride" or "Always in the Way". Painting on artillery pieces and aeroplanes displayed a variety of soldier sentiments. As the war progressed, painting on aeroplane canvas became a fine art, personalizing the machine with bright color schemes, artistically painted insignia and decorations such as shark's teeth. This form of soldier art reached its peak in the 'nose art' of WWII.


Decorated Shell
Mutton Bone
Letter Opener
Matchbox Cover
Matchbox Cover 2
Turkish Snakes
Wooden Box
Wooden Picture Frame

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Prisoners of war on both sides of the conflict produced an amazing variety of artifacts made for sale to soldiers or civilians in areas near the camps in which they were interned. Some camps held artistic exhibitions in which these handicrafts were offered for sale to the public. British civilians in Ruhleben, a camp outside Berlin, produced a number of objects made by melting down silver coins. They also made inventive use of available materials such as rat skins to make leather wallets. Many of these items were sent home as souvenirs to their families in Britain. German prisoners in Britain created flower vases and napkin rings using mutton and beef bones from their rations, while Turkish prisoners made realistic snakes and other objects from beads. Russian prisoners made use of their woodworking skills to produce carved cigarette boxes and other items. Members of the Royal Naval Division interned in Holland crafted a variety of wooden boxes and picture frames. When brass and aluminum were made available to prisoners, many of them made souvenir shell vases, match box covers or letter openers to sell to their captors or to nearby civilians.


Embroidered Badge
Embroidered Badge 2
Embroidered Belts
Red Cross Ship
Ceramic Souvenir

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A variety of institutions in France, Britain and America 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 after they were well enough to return home. Some of these institutions also encouraged the making of handicrafts in a variety of media for sale to the public. Ceramic pieces, wooden picture frames and small items such as paper knives and rings made from battlefield detritus were popular pieces. Wounded French soldierspicked up scraps of metal from the battlefields and made them into letter openers and similar items for sale at Fort Vaux during the war. To relieve boredom in convalescent hospitals in Britain and France, soldiers recovering from wounds were encouraged to make a variety of handicrafts. Needlework was a popular pastime among British soldiers, and pieces ranging from embroidered and crewel belts to embroidered regimental crests were made as souvenirs by patients. In 1916 the British War Office donated a quantity of aluminum from a zeppelin shot down over England to be made into souvenir objects for sale to benefit employees of the London and North-Western Railway who had been wounded in the war. Other detritus from German aeroplanes was given to the Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops for fabrication into a variety of souvenirs that were sold to the public.


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Numerous war correspondents and civilians eagerly visited battle sites throughout the war. Many of these first tourists collected battlefield detritus as souvenirs to take home. Commercial tours of the battlefields began shortly after the war and have continued to the present day. Motives of battlefield tourists were mixed; some merely came out of curiosity to see the sites of battles they had been reading about in the press during the war. Others visited as pilgrims to mourn the human loss and devastation caused by The War to End All Wars or to visit the graves of lost loved ones. One guide written in the mid-30s expressed the emotion felt by those who had embarked on their journeys in a spirit of reverence.

In their tour many pilgrims pause and stand sometimes in meditation, reflecting upon the deeds of valour, so many of them untold, and of sacrifice that will never be known, of which the landscape has been the witness and that nearly every village knew.

Other tourists were eager to collect their own personal souvenirs, and Thomas Cook and Sons 1920 brochure deemed it necessary to preface descriptions of tours offered by their firm with the following quotation from Rudyard Kipling, who had lost his beloved only son in the war:

It rests with the individual tourist to have respect for the spirit that lies upon all that land of desolation and to walk through it with reverence.

At the well-known ruins of buildings at Ypres, it was felt necessary to post signs forbidding the collection of pieces of the fabric of the building for souvenirs. French and Belgian civilians, realizing the rich market for souvenirs from the Western Front began to fabricate flower vases and other souvenirs made from shell casings and other war scrap for sale to eager buyers. Commercial shops also were set up at popular tourist centers and in Paris and offered a large quantity and wide variety of trench art pieces for sale to tourists.


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Many commercial firms offered a variety of souvenirs during the war. Cigar and cigarette boxes, jewelry, picture frames, and copies of soldiers identification disks in gold to be used as lockets with a photograph of the soldier or a lock of his hair were advertised in periodicals as suitable Christmas gifts in 1915. After the war the Army and Navy Store in London offered to transform shell cases, fuses and shell fragments brought home by soldiers into decorative objects. Souvenir lamps were made by the shell-loading plant at Morgan, New Jersey following an explosion in October 1918 that destroyed the plants capacity for ammunition production for the remainder of the war

An immense amount of surplus war material was scrapped or sold off after the war. In Brooklyn, New York a native-born Scot, Francis Bannerman, had speculated on surplus from the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, making considerable profit from resale of equipment and fabrication of assemblages of knives, bayonets and other pieces of military surplus into souvenir military decorations. When the opportunity to purchase military surplus after WWI arose, Bannerman purchased a huge amount of this material. Some of Bannermans recycled and mounted pieces occasionally appear today advertised as trench art.

Among the most desirable of commercial pieces made from shell casings were those fabricated by the Arts and Crafts artist, Dirk van Erp, an immigrant from Holland who worked as a metal worker in the shipyards near San Francisco. As early as 1900 he began making vases from spent shell casings in a hammered geometric style with artificially patinated finishes.

Decorated 37mm Shell
Note from Shell
Engraving with Embossing
Zig-Zag Work
Appliqu Work

Jane Kimball's book, Trench Art: An Illustrated History, (Silverpenny Press, 2004) is a comprehensive survey of all types of trench art and related war souvenirs from the Napoleonic Wars to the present With more than 400 pages of text and 1,000 color illustrations, the book focuses on objects made during and after the Great War. It includes extensive references to trench art in WWI periodicals and other contemporary sources. Military collectors as well as art historians and social historians share an interest in trench art. The book is heavily illustrated with examples of the diverse body of objects known as "trench art," as well as information on identifying individual pieces and tips for collectors.

WARNING: Decorated shell
casings, especially the small
37mm size, sometimes come
with projectiles. Occasionally
these may contain live explosives
that can kill or cause serious
injuries. Do not tamper with
or try to take apart any projectile, machine polish it, or let children play with it. If in doubt take the piece to someone who knows about military ordnance and can tell you if it contains live explosive material.
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Text and Photographs Jane A. Kimball 1989, 2005

Comments may be addressed by e-mail to : janeallisonkimball at gmail.com dot com
Web Page Design and Construction:
N. J. Kushigian.

Page Page updated 6-23-07

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The neat categories outlined at the beginning of this piece blur and fade as one looks at individual pieces of trench art. Most are not signed, either because this was not felt to be important at the time since they were made by individual soldiers for their loved ones at home, or because shell casings pilfered from government owned property for decoration and sale by civilians or soldiers to other soldiers or tourists would have resulted in severe repercussions to the artist if a shell casing were traced back to him.

The makers of this folk art are then mostly anonymous. Pieces like the one illustrated, in which a note was enclosed, are extremely rare. Pieces of shell fragments and similar items mounted after the war as souvenirs sometimes give information about the person who collected them. Shell case flower vases, the central objects of interest to many trench art collectors, are valued by different collectors either for the quality of the art work on a piece, for specific unit or regimental identifications, or for the commemoration of individual battles. Some shell case vases identify individuals, their ranks and units and the battles in which they fought, or are engraved with the names of the persons for whom they were made. Others feature figural themes such as national patriotic symbols: the Statue of Liberty, Britannia, the French cockerel, portraits of King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, and the Iron Cross. Floral designs were a very popular motif and feature roses, poppies, daisies, iris, grapes and vine leaves, ivy and oak leaves.

The headstamp (the markings on the bottom of a shell casing) are valuable identification marks. Typically, a headstamp includes the caliber of the shell, the manufacturer, and the date of the shell. This does not mean, however, that a French shell casing was decorated by a French soldier or civilian or that a German shell casing was the work of a German soldier. Hundreds of thousands of British, French, and German shells were amassed in large scrap heaps, and a trench artist merely picked one to decorate. Iron crosses were popular motifs for Allied soldiers as well as German forces. Pairs of shell casings with one marked 1914 and the other 1918 were very popular souvenirs of the war. Sometimes pairs have been separated, and the 1914 piece is sold as having been made in 1914. If the headstamp indicates the shell was manufactured after 1914, the decorated shell could not have been made in that year.

Shell casings were decorated by a variety of metalworking techniques, of which embossing or hammering, engraving and zig-zag or wigglework were the most common. Applying regimental or city crests or other items to the surface of a shell casing, called appliqu work, was another popular form of decoration.

Although thousands of trench art souvenirs were brought home by soldiers and by tourists visiting the battlefields after the war, many pieces eventually drifted up to attics or down to basements as memories of the war faded. Old soldiers sometimes wished to erase painful experiences by putting away their souvenirs. A trench art piece often did not fit into a new decorating scheme or its meaning was lost after the death of the person who had brought it home. An enormous number of pieces were destroyed in the scrap metal
drives of WWII when basements, attics and garages were scoured for scrap brass for the war effort.

Collectors in the 1950s and even into the 1960s in fact found scrap metal yards a rich source of trench art. Current collectors tend to find their treasures at antique shops and shows, gun shows, estate and yard sales, and more recently in cyberspace through the Internet. Unlike collectors in some other genres, trench art does not suffer in a major way from reproduction pieces passed off as genuine, since the work involved in making a single decorated object may have required as many as 10,000 hammer blows from start to finish, not including any additional embellishments added by the artist.

With the richness of pieces to choose from, one new collector might aim for a broadly based collection with examples of several kinds of trench art. Another might be interested only in decorated shell casings. Within this genre there is ample room for specialization. Vases with floral decorations or those identifying military units or battles or figural vases are all possible areas on which to focus a collection. Some collectors with specialized interests in other areas have come to appreciate trench art inkwells, tobacco humidors and lighters, embroidery, buttonhooks, and Turkish beadwork as desirable additions to their collections.

The opinions of collectors on cleaning and polishing trench art pieces, especially those made from brass, are varied and strongly held. Many trench art pieces, especially those that come from barns, attics and garages, can be grubby with dirt and dust accumulated over several years. They also come with a variety of interior contents: more dirt, old matches, chicken feathers and accumulations of old dust. Warm water and dishwashing detergent will flush out the interior of a shell casing, and a soft plastic vegetable brush will remove much of the dust and grime from the exterior surface. This and a thin coating of fine carnuba wax is often all that is needed before displaying a piece.

Shells brought home after the war to Belgian and British households joined horse brasses and other brass objects on mantelpieces and hall tables. They were assiduously polished by the lady of the house or by a housemaid and over the years the original design has often been almost totally obliterated, thus reducing the artistic appeal of these pieces to some collectors.

Many brass pieces have beautiful patinas created over the years through the natural oxidation of the copper content of the brass. Some, judging from the recipes in formularies popular during the period, were probably artificially patinated at the time they were made or shortly thereafter to prevent tarnishing. Other shell casings were varnished shortly after they were made to prevent tarnishing. In many cases the varnish has mellowed to a pleasant finish. There is also some evidence that depressions in the patterns on some brass pieces were filled with material of a different color to make the designs stand out more clearly.

Some dealers and collectors strive to polish pieces made from shell casings down to the raw brass to make them look like they were when they were made. Unless they are coated after polishing with wax or a tarnish-resistant finish the natural patinization process will begin spontaneously, sometimes resulting in an unattractive piece. It is useful to remember that every time a piece is polished a small layer of its design is forever obliterated.

Bookshelves or similar display cases are a useful way to display shell art vases and aluminum pieces. Smaller items like lighters, match boxes and letter openers can be displayed effectively in Riker Display Mount boxes or similar small cases, which provide a good overview of pieces in a particular category without excessive handling.

Every piece of trench art is a unique artistic creation. Each in the end is valued for its past associations with a family member or friend, for its individual personality, for the skill with which a particular artistic design is rendered, or for its association with a specific military unit or battle. This unique art form, born of blood and sacrifice, deserves much more attention than it has received to date.
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