Trench Art is commonly defined as any decorative item made by soldiers or prisoners of war, where the manufacture is directly linked to armed conflict or its consequences. The most common example found by the detectorist is a decorated shell or bullet casing from the First World War. The term is also used to describe souvenirs made by soldiers during WW2, but is much more uncommon.
The term trench art conjures up a mud-spattered soldier in a soggy trench crafting a souvenir for a loved one at home while dodging bullets and artillery shells. I think that image is far from the truth. The origins can be quite diverse and can include mementoes of war made by convalescent soldiers, souvenirs made by prisoners of war in exchange for food, cigarettes or money and so on.
“Decorated shell cases are perhaps the most common type of trench art. The one on the left is one of a pair, engraved by a British soldier. The design was taken from a stencil, which was purchased from a Belgian soldier for five Woodbine cigarettes. The design was transferred to the shell case using iodine. A bent nail was then used to engrave the design into the metal.” IWM
Art objects from the trenches of the WW1 were generally created during pauses in battle, which could last weeks or months. These extended periods of time offered the soldiers’ ample time to carve or etch scrap metal into souvenirs. A soldier certainly needed a hobby to occupy his mind during these seemingly endless periods of inaction. The spent shell casings were plentiful so they became his material of choice.
The cynics will even tell you that enterprising French and Belgian citizens in the 1920’s made such artefacts. Today, commercial firms offer ‘trench style art’ to those tourists touring the European battlefields.
The origins of trench art lie in the so-called ‘Prisoner of War Work’, in existence from the Napoleonic wars, and probably earlier. This work is characterised by its exquisitely intricate nature – impossibly labour-intensive, conjuring up images of months and years in captivity with little or no activity but that which you made for yourself.
An Unusual Example of the Genre
A fascinating and most unusual artefact recently found by Belgian detectorist Kristof Bruyndonckx, poses some interesting questions. Kristof tells me that he started detecting in March 2011 with a bad detector, but soon changed it for a Garrett Ace 250, “no top detector, but for me it is very good!”
Because the fields were in crop and thus unavailable, he went with a friend and searched the area around an old boarded up house adjacent to woodland.
The main find for both of them was spent bullets, but eventually there was, according to Kristof, a “nice signal”. Unfortunately, when he eventually retrieved the mud-encrusted artefact from the hole, he was disappointed for it didn’t appear to be anything much. Because it was nothing of interest to him, the find was offered to his friend, but he didn’t want it either!
Back home, Kristof carefully cleaned the item and discovered that it was a coin! The English 1945 half-crown, only recognisable from the untidy reverse, had been intricately and expertly fashioned into something quite different and was his first silver find. The obverse with the initials AB is quite amazing!
The reverse shows what the coin would have looked like before being ‘doctored’.
The half crown was a denomination of British money worth two shillings and sixpence, being one-eighth of a pound. The half crown was first issued in 1549, in the reign of Edward VI. No half crowns were issued in the reign of Mary, but from the reign of Elizabeth I half crowns were issued in every reign except Edward VIII, until the coins were discontinued in 1967. The half crown was demonetised (ahead of other pre-decimal coins) on 1 January 1970, the year before the United Kingdom adopted decimal currency on Decimal Day.
Kristof was now very happy with the find for it was unique and has given him the incentive to do more detecting. But is his find trench art? I think so … there is some evidence.
The town of Vorselaar where the item was found is located in the Kempen, and situated in the heart of the Belgian province of Antwerp. Kristof tells me that “there was a fight there in WW2″ and is the reason that he found so many bullets. He also didn’t think it was that unusual the coin was a half-crown and said, “there were a lot of soldiers from your country (UK) here to help, and I thank you for that!”
Perhaps British troops did the same and whilst waiting, a Tommy took a coin from his pocket and fabricated that magnificent item. Unfortunately, he appears to have lost it soon afterwards … all that work! I cannot imagine how he managed to do it, or the tools he used.
I did a little simple research and found that the Royal Canadian Dragoons also used Vorselaar in early 1945 as a ‘resting area’ before going into battle in Holland.
Brian’s ‘Trench Art Style’ first efforts
In a thread on the NRH detecting forum re the trench art style, Brian Ridley showed his first attempts at the skill. The halfpenny on the left is stamped with the initials of his grandparents; the others are pennies. He used a piercing saw and a selection iff needle files to achieve the results he wanted, which are impressive. I particularly like the Tommy!
Brian says: “Here’s my attempt at a Aussie slouch hat trench art style. Was a bugger of a job heating up the penny then quenching it in water, which made it soft for a few hits with hammer whilst the copper was soft. Then repeated the process … not easy. The picture shows the final result.”
See the earlier blog post Diggers’ Digging Down-Under for further examples and information on the slouch hat.
Wes Boucher aka Stantheman of the Irish Metal Detecting forum says:
Here’s another half crown piece that was made by an IRA inmate in Mountjoy prison, Dublin sometime around November 1920. The ‘old’ IRA at that time was made up of many ex-British army (Irish) who returned home to fight for Ireland after WWI and who were skilled in trench art.
Although the name of the maker is lost we do know that it was made as a wedding gift for Thomas Bryan. He married whilst in prison and was to be hanged for treason four months later, aged 24. The coin survived thanks to his widow who never married and died of TB years later.
I just love it when my blog posts are shared and commented on by others. The detectorist known as ‘alloverover’ on the British Metal Detecting forum (BMD) sent me this today:
“Very good feature John. Thanks. I found this not long after I started detecting and can remember it clearly. It was dusk when I found it, out on my own and knowing nothing, I really thought it was an image of the Devil himself and it gave me the right willies !Only later did I find out it was Napoleon III’s bust, cut out of a 10 Centimes coin, I dont know if its trench art or not. It has been filled down so is much thinner than the coin itself and has a patch of something on the back where it has been stuck on something.
So, trench art? I dont know, its obviously to late for the Napolionic wars but were the coins still in circulation during the first world war. I dont know that either, it was found in a field not far from Colchester but with no military links I know of, what do you think?”