trench art

A Brief History of Trench Art

The Nineteenth Century

In the 1850s we reach the Crimean War.  While relatively short, this was the first war where ‘on the spot’ journalism could take place, with reports telegraphed back to England to be published in newspapers only a day or two after the actual events.  This meant the civilian population were much more ‘involved’ in a ‘real time’ war and, since we were victorious, a serious market in souvenirs began at the end of the war, with impoverished locals collecting debris from the battlefields and forging them into inkwells and mementos to sell to English tourists and traders.

A very similar trade sprang up after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, either commemorating specific battles or the seige of Paris.

The Second Boer War is significant in the history of trench art, in that it was the first major conflict to use breech-loaded artillery, meaning, for the first time, we have the appearance of what most people picture when they think of trench art – the brass shell or cartridge casing. Their use for trench art, however, was very much in its infancy and doesn’t extend much beyond etched narratives around the outside – “Shell fired at XYZ, South Africa 1900” plus some limited shaping to the top of the casing.

 Prisoner of War work from this conflict, however, was substantial, with camps for Boer prisoners on St Helena, Ceylon and on several islands around Bermuda, all of whom quickly began producing items in local hardwoods and bone. The page turners and snuff boxes were common products.

Other items produced in South Africa, as souvenirs, include painted eggs from large birds such as the emu, decorated with regimental crests.

boer war prisoner workboer war decorated ostrich egg

Paper knife, napkin ring and 'trick' snuff box from Ceylon and Bermuda            Ostrich egg decorated with the crest of the 6th Dragoon Guards

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