A Brief History of Trench Art
The Great War period - 1914-1930
And so dawns the Edwardian era. The Arts and Crafts movement, personified by William Morris, Archibald Knox, Edward Burne-Jones and many others, was slowly developing into Art Nouveau. The British Empire was at its zenith, England was full of craftsmen, artisans and poets. A new era of the Grand Tour was made possible by technological advancements; trains and ocean liners meant the well to do spent their holidays travelling the world and naturally souvenirs and collections of artefacts were very much in vogue.
In the middle of this endless summer, the Great War for Civilisation begins, but the civilisation for which it was being fought remained, indeed they were the protagonists – this was not fought by professional armies, but by the populations themselves, this was Total War. The craftsmen and souvenir collectors still existed, and their passions remained.
Once the war of movement, the ‘over by Christmas’ war ends and the armies on both sides realise they are in for the long haul, the soldiers and civilians begin to utilise their time and resources to satisfy their covetous natures. Craftsmen begin to make things to sell; collectors start to buy things to keep as souvenirs of this momentous period in their lives.
The industrialised nature of the war meant massive quantities of material were used, providing ample raw material for trench art.
The fact it was a ‘total war’ meant every citizen in the participating nations felt ‘involved’ in some capacity, meaning souvenirs would have meaning for everyone, thus providing an unprecedented market. As a result, the Great War was the ‘golden age’ of trench art with, I would estimate, 75% of all extant items having been produced in the 1914 to 1930 period.
Shell dump at Fricourt during Battle of the Somme French soldiers decorating shell cases [© Nick Saunders]