This pioneering, copiously illustrated little guide is constantly intriguing, often disturbing, sometimes moving, and shot through with irony. It documents, surprisingly for the first time, the "art" created by servicemen and civilians during and after war, out of the materials of war. This is generally known as "trench art", and is associated with the first world war.
But, as the anthropologist and archaeologist Nicholas Saunders points out, the term is rather misleading - for much of the art was produced not in the trenches during wartime, but in the period 1919-39, for sale to those visiting the battlefields in search of souvenirs of the fallen or to battlefield tourists. Moreover, trench art continues to be produced today, when there are no trenches. The Victoria Cross is made from the bronze of cannons captured in the Crimean war; there are many souvenirs made from the detritus of the recent Balkan conflicts; and no doubt there will be items to come from the latest conflict in Afghanistan.
Trench Art focuses almost exclusively on the first world war. Although the materials used in the objects include wood, cloth and bone (occasionally human), it is metal that dominates trench art: the sharp weapons of death such as shell cases, bullets and shrapnel, shaped into a huge variety of innocuous objects such as ashtrays, clocks and crucifixes (see photo)- and frequently lovingly polished by returning soldiers or the families of those who never returned.
Thus Sapper Pearl, an Australian engineer, made an ingenious clock at Ypres in March 1918. In his own words: "The case was made from two 4.5in shell-cases picked up on Christmas Day 1917 at the Australian batteries at Le Bizet. The foot support is a clip of an 18-pounder shell. The arms are detonator wells of rifle-grenades and nose-caps. The hands are from a gun-cotton case, while the alarm cover is an American-made 18-pounder nose-cap with a 'whizz-bang' driving-band. The Rising Sun is the badge of a mate killed at Noreuil, while a button from the maker's greatcoat and a German bullet surmount the whole."
How to impose meaningful order on such a disparate and deeply ambiguous body of work? Saunders identifies three major categories. First, there is trench art made on active service, by servicemen, by prisoners of war and by the wounded. Then comes trench art made by civilians, often sold to active or former servicemen, in the period 1914-39. Finally, there is trench art commercially manufactured from battlefield materials by established companies "which had already done well from four and a half years of war".
Illustrating this last category is a bizarre advertisement from the Army and Navy Stores catalogue for "Members' own war trophies mounted", which offers a "shell head as letter clip, on ebonized base", a set of hanging shell cases of differing sizes as a "table gong", and a piece of shrapnel, also on an ebonized base.
A warning notice printed in small type advises potential purchasers: "The Society cannot undertake the responsibility of unloading shells or cartridges, and all such trophies must be unloaded before delivery, failing which they will at once be returned to the sender." I like that "at once".
One wonders what sort of people bought these civilised mementos of mass slaughter. Not, apparently, Germans, many of whom felt distaste for such souvenirs, even during the war. Despite the vast amount of writing about and television coverage of the first world war, it is still difficult to enter the minds of the generation that experienced the trenches. Like Saunders's grandfather, my own hardly spoke of the war. Judged as art, much of the work in this book is at the level of Baldrick, the lowly first world war private in Blackadder . But judged as material culture, as Saunders does, it is fascinating and deserving of in-depth study.
Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES .
Trench Art: A Brief History and Guide, 1914-1939
Author - Nicholas J. Saunders
ISBN - 0 85052 862 3
Publisher - Leo Cooper
Price - £12.95
Pages - 160