By Samantha Glass
In the aftermath of World War I fragmented materials of combat saturated European soil. Reared in mud, blood, and sweat the metal harvest of ammunitions and shrapnel became the medium for art. Following the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, the four hundred mile Western Front transformed into parallel networks of cracks divided by fields of barbed wire. Despite its title, trench art was not typically created in the trenches. This evocative term denotes the place where the materials and memories were cultivated and harvested to be whittled and etched in the idle hours of a hospital bed or prison cell. Between 1914 and 1939 artists were Prisoners of War, hospitalized soldiers, and civilians using the debris of war to reassemble public and personal memories. Collecting artillery pieces from the Verdun, Ypres, Marne or the Somme and crafting them into sculptures of crosses made of bullets or floral vases made of 77mm shells, the public was reclaiming the very tools that splintered empires and broke their families.
Unconventional in the nature of its creation, trench art was initially crafted as personal souvenirs and mementos – never destine to hang behind gilded frames or sit on marble pedestals in National Museums. As the defining material of the war, metal rained down upon men; it preserved their food and protected their heads. It was mean to defend them, but it would kill most of them. Citizens and soldiers endowed metal with a symbolic meaning. In Siegfried Sassoon’s 1918 poem Glory of Women he writes:
“You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.”
A unique relationship is fostered between men and women, perhaps none more significant than the munitionettes. Each shell they made on the assembly line was kissed with a death sentence. The phrase “You make us shells” expresses the doleful irony that these women proliferated the very instruments that made both landscapes and men unrecognizable.
Trench art continues to evade the lock and key of art museums and gallery showcases. Rather than being classified as “high art” these pieces circulate across the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, and even the United States as military collectibles. Quite frequently anonymously engraved cigarette lighters, letter openers, and pens all made during and from WWI scrap metal and bullet cartridge cases can still be found at flea markets and local auctions. Yet, the personal memories of life in the cracks conjured by the trench art they commissioned, sold or crafted themselves has slipped away with the war generation. It is baffling that societies don’t honor these pieces or recognize how they offer another dimension to interpreting the psychological and cultural memory of the Great War. In remembrance of violence we tend towards war poetry, letters and diaries or look at paintings by Sargent, Lovell or Bastien. Yet none of these works more powerfully manifests the efforts of civilians and soldiers to piece together a comprehensible memory of war than trench art. Made by women to kill men, to save men, to fragment nations, to protect nations, trench art carries the emotional weight of personal narratives of victory and survival.
Samantha Glass is a junior Global Affairs major in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.