Nicholas J. Saunders explores the ways in which humans make art from objects of death, in conflicts spanning the Napoleonic to Bosnian Wars.
‘Trench Art’ is the popular name given to a group of objects in which human lives are captured in creations, trapping a spark of the human spirit in the extremes of total war. Apart from the visual appeal and technical virtuosity of individual pieces, these objects are ‘social documents’ with a cultural value far beyond their status as military memorabilia.
Today the Great War of 1914-18 stands at the furthest edge of living memory. As the last survivors pass away, the events of eighty-five years ago live on as history, archaeology and anthropology. In recent years, there has been new interest in the material culture of the First World War – objects which embody the ordinary soldiers’ and civilians’ experiences of conflict, and which touch on its cultural, artistic, psychological and technological legacies.
Trench art can be any object made by soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians, from war matériel or any other material, as long as object and maker are associated in time and space with armed conflict or its consequences. Most important is the role of the individual in bestowing meaning on the object. An artillery shell is not trench art when made in a munitions factory, but it becomes so when it is shaped or engraved after it has been fired. The definition of Great War trench art includes such objects made at any time from 1914 to 1939, as post-war examples are a material legacy of conflict.