Trench Art is commonly defined as any decorative item made by soldiers or prisoners of war, where the manufacture is directly linked to armed conflict or its consequences. The most common example found by the detectorist is a decorated shell or bullet casing from the First World War. The term is also used to describe souvenirs made by soldiers during WW2, but is much more uncommon.
The term trench art conjures up a mud-spattered soldier in a soggy trench crafting a souvenir for ab loved one at home while dodging bullets and artillery shells. I think that image is far from the truth. The origins can be quite diverse and can include mementoes of war made by convalescent soldiers, souvenirs made by prisoners of war in exchange for food, cigarettes or money and so on. The lighter, fashioned from a cartwheel coin, was supplied by Mr Miyagi.
Art objects from the trenches of WW1 were generally created during pauses in battle, which could last weeks or months. These extended periods of time offered the soldiers’ ample time to carve or etch scrap metal into souvenirs. A soldier certainly needed a hobby to occupy his mind during these seemingly endless periods of inaction. The spent shell casings were plentiful so they became his material of choice.
The cynics will even tell you that enterprising French and Belgian citizens in the 1920s made such artefacts. Today, commercial firms offer ‘trench style art’ to those tourists touring the European battlefields.
The origins of trench art lie in the so-called ‘Prisoner of War Work’, in existence from the Napoleonic wars, and probably earlier. This work is characterised by its exquisitely intricate nature – impossibly labour- intensive, conjuring up images of months and years in captivity with little or no activity but that which you made for yourself.
A fascinating and most unusual artefact recently found by Belgian detectorist Kristof Bruyndonckx, poses some interesting questions. Kristof tells me that he started detecting in March 2011 with, ‘a bad detector, but soon changed it for a Garrett Ace 250. No top detector, but for me it is very good!’
At that time – in April, because the fields were in crop and thus unavailable, he went with a friend and searched the area around an old boarded up house adjacent to woodland. The main find for both of them was spent bullets, but eventually there was, according to Kristof, “a nice signal.”
Unfortunately, when he eventually retrieved the mud- encrusted artefact from the hole, he was disappointed for it didn’t appear to be anything much. Because it was nothing of interest to him, the find was offered to his friend, but he didn’t want it either!
Back home, Kristof carefully cleaned the item and discovered that it was a coin! The English 1945 half-crown, only recognisable from the untidy reverse, had been intricately and expertly fashioned into something quite different and was his first silver find. The obverse with the initials AB is quite amazing!
Kristof was now very happy with his unique find which has given him the incentive to do more detecting. But is his find trench art? I think so … there is some evidence.
The town of Vorselaar where the item was found is situated in the heart of the Belgian province of Antwerp. Kristof tells me that there was a fight there in WW2 and is the reason that he found so many bullets. He also didn’t think it was that unusual the coin was a half-crown and said, “there were a lot of soldiers from your country (UK) here to help, and I thank you for that!”
“I did a little research and found that the Royal Canadian Dragoons used Vorselaar in early 1945 as a ‘resting area’ before going into battle in Holland.”
<<< Kristof Bruyndonckx
Perhaps British troops did the same and whilst waiting, a Tommy took a coin from his pocket and fabricated this magnificent item. Unfortunately, he appears to have lost it soon afterwards … all that work! I cannot imagine how he managed to do it, or the tools he used. (Now I’m talking like an archeologist and trying to make a plausible story).
Thank you to Kristof for sharing his story in my blog.
The video shows the entire restoration of a homemade gasoline bullet lighter created in World War II. These lighters were made by the soldiers themselves from casings and bullets from used cartridges, flint and wick. This lighter lay in the ground for a long time at the site of the battle, until it was found using a metal detector. RustyRussian says, “Please support my young channel with a subscription, like and comment! Thanks!”
I was delighted to receive a communication from Micheal Rawlins, an administrator on the Canadian MDF:
“ John, you have hit upon one of my all time favourite topics – Military finds. Here is a 37 mm shell that has been deactivated and then carved/decorated to celebrate that battle of Peronne [I suspect). The Battle of Mont Saint-Quentin was on the Western Front during World War I. As part of the Allied Hundred Days Offensive on the Western Front in the late summer of 1918, the Australian Corps crossed the Somme River on the night of August 31, and broke the German lines at Mont Saint-Quentin and Péronne. The British Fourth Army’s commander, General Henry Rawlinson, described the Australian advances of August 31 – September 4 as the greatest military achievement of the war. During the battle Australian troops stormed, seized and held the key height of Mont Saint-Quentin (overlooking Péronne), a pivotal German defensive position on the line of the Somme.
The Allies were pursuing the Germans, and the greatest obstacle to crossing the Somme River in pursuit was Mont Saint-Quentin which, situated in a bend of the river, dominated the whole position. The Mont was only 100 metres high but was a key to the German defence of the Somme line, and the last German stronghold. It overlooked the Somme River approximately 1.5 kilometres north of Péronne. Its location made it an ideal observation post, and strategically, the hill’s defences guarded the north and western approaches to the town.”