Trench Art: Facts and Information

What is Trench Art?

Trench art is a term used to describe any decorative items made by soldiers, prisoners of war and members of the public as a result of a war taking place. Pieces of trench art wouldn’t exist if armed conflicts didn’t happen.

A massive amount of trench art was produced by the soldiers of World War 1 (and this explains where the term comes from), but trench art is not limited to World War 1. The first trench art comes from the Napoleonic Wars, and those involved in conflict from then until now have continued to produce works of art and decorative souvenirs.

During the Crimean War canon balls were fashioned into inkwells, and during the American Civil War, powder horns, snuff boxes were personalized, and game pieces were made from bone and used bullets.

Napoleonic Trench Art

Prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars (1796 to 1815), often locked away for years in very poor conditions, manufactured items from bone, straw and wood to trade for more food rations. Surviving examples of Napoleonic prisoner of war art include highly detailed models of ships made from bone, and decorative straw work boxes.

World War 1 Trench Art

Some of the trench art of World War 1 was created in the front line trenches themselves (for example, carvings were made in rock outcrops around dug outs), but most was made by soldiers at rest stationed away from the front line, by prisoners of war, or by soldiers recovering from their wounds.

Shell art is incredibly popular among collectors of trench art. Shell casings could be decorated by embossing and engraving, and World War 1 produced a massive range of different examples. The designs often included flowers, animals, military images. Some detailed the artist’s war record and others included inscriptions to the artist’s loved ones.

Trench Art
World War 1 soldiers creating trench art out of empty shell casings

Other popular items of World War 1 trench art included, letter openers made from pieces of brass and cartridge cases, napkin rings, dinner gongs, picture frames, finger rings, and models of aeroplanes and tanks.

World War I: Life in the Trenches

Here are some facts about life in the World War 1 trenches.

  • Trench warfare featured prominently in World War I. It was a method of fighting in which opposing armies dug trenches for protection and defence.
  • During World War I, there were an estimated 2,490 km of trenches throughout western Europe. Most trenches were about 3 metres deep and between 1 and 2 metres wide.

  • Life in the trenches was extremely hard, as well as dangerous. Most soldiers spent between a day and 2 weeks in a trench on the front line before being relieved.
  • Sanitary conditions in the trenches were poor and many soldiers suffered from gangrene and cholera. Often, dead bodies were simply left out in the open rather than buried.

World War 1 trenches

  • Trenches could quickly flood during heavy rain and one of the duties of the men was to drain water with a pump. Other duties included refilling sandbags and repairing the wooden flooring.
  • Rats, which could grow as large as cats, were a problem in the trenches. Frogs, spiders and lice were also pests that the soldiers had to battle daily.
  • One of the worst things about life in the trenches was the horrible smell. Many men did not bathe for weeks, and the trenches also smelled of rotting sandbags, cigarette smoke and poison gas.
  • It was difficult to sleep properly in the trenches because of the noise and uncomfortable surroundings. As a result, because men were tired and constantly in danger of falling asleep while on watch, the watch was kept to 2 hours.
  • The first trenches were primitive and were simply deep holes dug in the ground. Later trenches were more sophisticated and often had sleeping quarters, toilets and showers, and cooking facilities.
  • There were several cease fires or truces during World War I. Towards Christmas in 1914, the British and German soldiers came out of their trenches, stopped fighting, and even sung carols and exchanged gifts. This became known as the Christmas Truce.

What next? Find out more facts about World War 1 by visiting our resources page.