November 09, 2018
Photos by Mike Anschuetz
For the last four years, I’ve visited the same strip of antique malls in Bristol, Tennessee, when visiting family for the holidays. Set back in a locked glass case among a plethora of smalls was a tall brass flower vase. It’s shaped from a spent cartridge case, has patina and is decorated in the style of Art Nouveau. I could never bring myself to pay the dealer his $250 asking price, but each year I became more intrigued and felt somewhat connected to it. Last winter, my wife offered the seller $150, and after pondering over her offer for a few minutes, he took the money. She gave it to me for Christmas, and I couldn’t help but start researching the history of trench art and its markings.
Though the name “trench art” invokes thoughts of miserable soldiers dodging bullets while carving out mementos with battlefield implements, it is actually a generic name given to a larger category of soldiers’ art that reaches back even before World War I. Collectors of trench art often apply the nickname to pieces created by soldiers and civilians working in war-torn occupied countries.
My first piece of trench art stands 12¾ inches tall and was made from a spent 75mm French casing. Four 2-inch-wide petals were cut at the case mouth, and a stippled ring surrounding the top half served as the canvas for the flowers and leaves set behind a shield bearing the inscription “FRANCAIS ARGONNE 1918.” The case presented two mysteries to me. First, at the bottom is “Jack-808-INFANTRY.” These marks were obviously engraved freehand, and neither really aligns with any piece of the case’s more professionally embossed art. The second mystery was to figure out how soldiers could have symmetrically pressed the 5-inch flutes that surround the bottom half of the case. In studying pictures of life in the trenches, I couldn’t find any sort of tooling that suggested this type of skill was readily available.
I couldn’t locate the name “Jack” in any roster, but I learned that the 808th Pioneer Infantry regiment was part of the larger A.E.F. noncombative service and labor unit, which included black Americans stationed in France. According to a letter penned by President Woodrow Wilson on May 23, 1918, the organization of “eight colored infantry regiments” was directed to Roy Hill, secretary of the War Department. After the Armistice on November 11, 1918, these soldiers were sent to perform salvage operations and roadwork, fill trenches, repair railroads and construct an ammunition dump near the Argonne Forest in France, where more than 25,000 Americans lost their lives. A number of soldiers were organized into a band and played field music for the regiment and surrounding villages, most notably performing during an inspection by General Pershing on June 4, 1919. The 808th Pioneer Infantry was sent home and disbanded the following month.
Decorated shell casings are probably the most abundant and available type of trench art. “Jack” didn’t create a souvenir vase from this spent 75mm shell case. Considering that its inscriptions are done in a French style, the story likely goes something like this:
According to Jane Kimball, author of “Trench Art: An Illustrated History,” soldiers and civilians collected spent artillery shell casings and other scrap material from the debris on former battlefields. They were also known to pilfer tall dump piles compiled after the Armistice. “The amount of artillery ordnance expended in the major battles of World War I is staggering,” says Kimball. “Before an army launched an attack, its artillery fired hundreds of thousands of shells in ‘rolling barrages’ designed to smash the enemy’s wire defenses and to undermine his morale before the infantry went ‘over the top.’”
Belgian and French soldiers did decorate empty shell casings early in the war to send home as souvenirs and sell to other soldiers. Despite French and American governments’ attempts at recycling cases, many were formed, engraved and embossed as flower vases. Local artisans established workshops for battlefield tourists to meet the demand for such souvenirs.
Artists looked for shell casings free of cracks and other damage, often tapping them with a metal object and listening for a singing resonance passing through the cases’ walls. Cases were then annealed to soften the brass, which made them easier to engrave, hammer or emboss. The cases were usually annealed several times during the process by placing them on a log fire until they glowed.
Early pieces of trench art were often decorated by the soldier who designed the shell. Some soldiers possessed different areas of expertise and often traded their efforts to enhance the decorative effects.
Designs were usually sketched in pencil on the case, then traced in ink. More-complicated designs were transferred by carbon paper or a paperback that had been traced with lead from a pencil. Printed templates with outlines of shields, flowers and leaves became available later in the war from commercial publishers, including ready-made patterns that could be wrapped around a shell and tied with string. Details and background stippling could be added afterward. Reusable zinc templates were available and were often used to create true pairs of similarly decorated vases.
Tools for engraving designs ranged from improvised nails and reworked bedsprings to screwdrivers and punches. In the wake of hostilities, soldiers cleaning up after the war effort were able to purchase professional engraving tools, including fancy punches that made crosses, stars and pyramids.
Engraving, embossing, hammering, Repousse, acid etching, lathe turning and soldered appliques were the most common methods to decorate shell casings, but fluting the lower surface also became quite popular. Fluting a shell case was done before designs were added, then sometimes capped by a lathe-turned band upon completion. An artillery gunner could anneal a shell casing and press it into the gears used to raise or lower the barrel of his gun, and a soldier with access to machine shops could create indented flutes using a similar technique on a metal press. Often, a wooden dowel was inserted into the interior of the shell to prevent the fluting from distorting the opposite side and help evenly space the flutes. The case was then placed on a sandbag, and a hardwood paddle was pounded on each line in sequence to achieve the desired depth.
Shells were decorated to commemorate the end of a battle campaign, the end of a war or service with a particular unit. Shells marked “1919” were made by or for soldiers waiting to go home. In order to occupy the time of idle soldiers and keep them out of trouble, American officers arranged for lathes and tools in the Army’s machine assembly lines to be used in creating fluted shell vases, with soldiers having artistic abilities decorating on a production-line system. The artists kept some for themselves, but most were sold to other soldiers as war souvenirs. Many of these wore blank shields incorporated into the designs so the buyer could have his name, unit or location of service engraved later.
Because shell casings were often intended to be flower vases, it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many of these relics feature floral motifs. American soldiers in the Signal Corps were known for adding birds, while soldiers in aviation and observation balloons represented their service with aircraft on the most rare type of decorated shells.
Knowing the history surrounding this artful war souvenir assigns it more sentimental value than actual worth. I’ve since discovered that hundreds of pieces of trench art are sold on eBay annually for between $50 and $200, as well as offerings of other forms of trench art. As you can see on these pages, trench art also appears in the form of ash trays, engraved cartridges, models of field guns, letter openers, cups and tankards, candle holders, lighters, religious objects and toys for children, to name just a few.
While the opportunities to acquire fine examples of the firearms used through World War II are fleeting for most gun collectors, starting a trench art collection is still a modest endeavor. The popularity of nostalgia continues to grow, which means there are more fakes and misrepresented pieces than ever before. It’s important to do a brief study on the history of trench art before paying out for questionable items. I must largely credit what I’ve learned about the art form to the vetted information found in two books: “Trench Art,” by Nicholas J. Saunders (2011), and “Trench Art: An Illustrated History,” by Jane A. Kimball (2004).
Historians such as Jim Herrman have amassed incredible collections of trench art reflecting the subtle influences that make every example unique. Many pieces from Mr. Herrman’s collection are illustrated here.