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Modern Collectibles – Trench Art

Modern Collectibles – Trench Art

On my desk at home is a small brass receptacle in which I have always kept my paperclips. It is brass, of circular form and has a domed brass lid engraved, a little crudely, with the arms of Derby, and with the word Derby below it. The top fits the base with wonderful accuracy, and the base was made from a 75mm French shell case and the lid adapted from a 77mm German field gun shell case. I bought it on the market for a pound when I was education officer at the Museum, merely because it was a local souvenir. 

Later, I came to realise that this was an excellent local piece of trench art. Trench art includes items made by serving soldiers, primarily in the two great wars, from whatever waste material was to hand, although in the first world war this was mainly brass from shell cases – for this was essentially an artillery war. In the second, one tends to find the use of Duralumin from crashed aircraft (easier to work than brass) too. Looking back further, I can recall shell cases in my maternal grandmother’s home in use as vases – for my grandfather, an Anglo-Irish renegade who had run away to sea before the conflict, was commissioned into a Canadian Regiment in Halifax, Nova Scotia and was in 1916 posted to the Western front – and survived. At home we had an undecorated 9.2inch howitzer shell case on our hearth as a spill vase, allegedly another of grandpapa’s spoils of war.

There is much evidence to prove that some trench art was made in the trenches during the Great War, although it is probable that only the very smallest bone, wooden and metal objects like rings were created in the front line on both sides of the conflict. The primary source is more likely to be support troops working behind the lines: Royal Engineers, REME, later RASC and so on. They had the materials, machinery, skill and occasional spare time, and money could be made selling souvenirs to soldiers heading home. Behind the lines, work to make souvenirs was also given to displaced civilians. Trench art was also made therapeutically by wounded and convalescing men, for whom such work formed part of their rehabilitation. And many no doubt personalised such souvenirs made by others by adding inscriptions of their own: regimental badges, mottoes, names and so on.

Yet there was a large manufacturing trade during and after the war well away from war zones. Thus, an item may have been bought – by the soldier, or by a relative on a subsequent battlefield visit. The major department stores were complicit in this. In the immediate post-war period they offered to turn war souvenirs such as shell fuse heads – often brought back by soldiers – into wooden-based paperweights and other items. A fine desk set recently came through Bamfords and made £85. Furthermore, if ex-soldiers had no souvenir, they could be provided. This is the explanation for the considerable number of examples of bulkier trench art, such as dinner gongs and poker stands made from shell charge cases. These would never have fitted into a kitbag!

With regards work done actually on the front line, the autobiography of soldier George Coppard tells of pressing uniform buttons into the clay floor of his trench, then pouring molten lead from shrapnel into the impressions to cast replicas of the regimental badge for application to shell case vases, the commonest form of Great War trench art.

 Many smaller items such as rings and knives were made by soldiers in quieter parts of the line. 

Coppard also recalled that, while recuperating from wounds at a private house back in England (‘Blighty’ in those days!) 

‘…one kind old lady brought a supply of coloured silks and canvas and instructed us in the art of embroidery. A sampler which I produced under her guidance so pleased her that she had it framed for me.’

A vast pile of spent 18 pounder shell cases on the Western Front: material to hand!

Another category of trench art consists of items made by prisoners of war and interned civilians, both endowed with limitless free time albeit with limited resources. Much POW work was therefore done with the express intention of trading the finished article for food, money, cigarettes or other privileges. 

At the war’s end, when civilians began to reclaim their shattered communities, a new market appeared in the form of pilgrims and tourists. Over the ensuing twenty years mountains of discarded debris, shell casings, and castoff equipment were slowly recycled, with mass-produced town crest motifs being stuck onto bullets, shell casings, fuse caps, and other items to be sold to tourists. 

Likewise, surplus matériel was sold by the government and converted to souvenirs of the conflict. Also, the dismantling of ships by scrap firms, particularly if the ship had been involved in significant events such as the Battle of Jutland, resulted in much of the wood from the ship being turned into miniature barrels, letter racks, pipe stands and boxes, with small brass plaques attached giving source and provenance.

At Bamford’s our late November library sale included a couple of batches of decorated shell-case vases, which usually come in pairs, and were estimated at £30-50. At antique fairs, £50-60 is about par for the course for these, but recently I also saw a pair of ashtrays with vesta cases supported on a spike rising from the middle for the very same price and a repoussé work jardinière made from a 12inch railway howitzer shell, again for £55. A pin tray was inset with a period Edward VII halfpenny and, if you turned over there was a 10c Belgian coin underneath!

My ‘Derby’ paperclip box

Spent and unspent bullets were also favoured. British .303 and German 7.62mm ones abound. A second world war Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter on a stand made from a shell case bottom, was fashioned in the Pacific theatre from 7.62mm bullets and Duralumin strips, later being chrome plated: yours for £90. 

The recent centenary of the Great War has raised the profile of this collecting field with a corresponding rise in prices, but in reality, £30-60 is the ball-park figure for a pair of decorated shell cases (they usually come in pairs). Turned into a jug with .303 rounds forming the handle, though, add another £20. Sometimes, the piece can be associated with the man who made it, like the exquisite Sopwith Camel model fashioned from scrap brass by Pte. F H Warren RAMC now in the Imperial War Museum. Something like this might make £300-400.

This can be a rewarding area of collecting, and prices should fall back now we have passed the great war centenary, although Second World War art is rarer and still holds up. If it is an area of collecting that appeals to you, though, try to go for the unusual.


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