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Trench Art, Teachings of An Era

Humans have always been creatures of habit. We revert to our habits regardless of why we formed them. A coping mechanism, a beneficial result, or simply because it’s in our nature; these three factors drive most of human behaviours.

But by far, humanity’s oldest habit, one that we most desperately try to break, is conflict. We find small differences between each other and we pick at the seams, artificially creating a rift amongst communities. We are a species of great intelligence. We created tools from branches and rocks, then we learned to build shelters and moved beyond squatting in caves. We learned how to protect ourselves from predators and we became the only species on the planet to cook food. Then, a few thousand years, and we learned how to generate electricity, heat our homes with boiling water, how to drag valuable resources from the bowels of the earth. But still, we cling to conflict. We cling to war.

But even amongst the mud and adrenaline of a war, humans have also cultivated an appreciation for art. We try to understand the world around us and interpret what we see with our hands. The natural culmination of these two natures results in an art form called “Trench Art”.

Trench Art has a few forms, and though the title is evocative, it is also incredibly misleading. The mental image of a First World War soldier, huddled in a trench with a scrap of metal is definitely enthralling, but is also heavily romanticised. The true definition is very liquid, But Trench Art can be traced back to the Nepolian war era, where scraps of damaged ships would be collected and formed into keepsakes. The same could be said for prisoners, who fashioned crude dice sets from bones in their broth or made sculptures from the lead of cannonballs.

As warfare evolved, so did the materials available, as well as the thoughts and emotions of the artists. Cannonballs became brass shells, broth bones became downed planes. The only constant was the feeling of hopelessness and unrelenting boredom. Spent brass would be collected and engraving these casings became common practice. Names of loved ones, brothers-in-arms, or notable dates were the most common markings.

A crucifix made of 7.62 ammunition and a German 77 munitions shell engraved with the cannon it was fired from.

Other pieces were more decorative, such as using anti-tank munitions as flower vases, or painting flowers onto the helmets of captured enemies. But the most common pieces held a function. Gerand clips were turned into tobacco boxes, decorated with the locations the soldier had fought, Damaged water canteens were turned into weapons or into letter openers. These pieces were often meant as distractions from the grim state of their reality, but clever prisoners of war found ways to trade decorative pieces for money, food, or privileges.

Unfortunately, at the beginning of the Second World War, many of these pieces were destroyed in drives to collect more brass for munitions. There are still pieces in circulation, however, and collectors debate amongst themselves whether the pieces should be left in their current state, or if they should be restored and lose some of the history of the art piece.

In the current era, Trench Art is much less common amongst the Armed Forces, but some soldiers are gifted a spent shell of heavy munitions engraved with the names of soldiers in their unit upon their retirement. the tourist locations related to historic events often sell replicas to tourists and historians. However, it is also common for these tourists to search the field for any of their own mementos and disturb the history of the battlefield.

I think that this art shows a curious side to humanity. We always find ourselves in conflict, in one way or another. If not against an enemy force, then against something less physical. A philosophy that opposes ours, the pressures of those around us, or even the battles that we all fight in our own head. But even in those darkest moments, each of us can make something beautiful from the debris and damage we have suffered and witnessed. This speaks to what it is to be human. A creature of habit, but one that is aware. A being that knows what it is, and it strives to be better. The goal is not to be perfect; the goal is simply to be better than you were yesterday.

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