Artists in the Foxhole – Trench Art at WWPL

In early December of 1918, President Woodrow Wilson set sail on the USS George Washington on a nine day route to France. Becoming the first United States president to visit Europe while in office, President Wilson would spend the vast majority of his time in France leading conference and delegation for a peace treaty to end World War I. Though abroad, President Wilson would spend Christmas day of 1918 with his fellow countrymen touring divisions of American soldiers stationed in France. It was on this holiday in 1918 that American soldiers stationed in France gave their Commander-and-Chief a gift of appreciation and respect. The gift, which is now housed in the museums collection of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, was a spiral carved cane with bullet casings inserted around the handle and along the arc. At the base of the handle is the engraved name of Woodrow Wilson.

The cane presented to Woodrow Wilson is a prime example of trench art created by many soldiers throughout the First World War. The term “trench art” is in reference to decorative war souvenirs created from recycled wartime materials. Bullets, artillery shells and shrapnel scraps were among the most commonly used mediums for creative expression.

P1050041After the initial assault into France and Belgium by the Germans in 1914, much of the Great War was spent in gridlock with soldiers dug deep in trenches across France. The “hurry up and wait” nature of World War I created a need for soldiers to remain occupied during lulls in battle. Many psychologists argues that the psychological toll on men in the days, weeks, and sometimes months waiting for fighting to resume could potentially do more harm long term to the unit then the fighting itself. To prevent these minds from breaking under the strains and stresses of war, it was common for soldiers to encourage one another to keep the mind sharp through creative artistic expression. Whether simply carving one’s identification and location into a used artillery shell or constructing a letter opener with used bullet casing and a dull knife, the presence of this art indicates the need to remain psychologically attentive a midst horror never before experienced by mankind.

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The increased interest in trench art in recent years has revived study of the World War I era. The buying and selling of Trench Art throughout the United State and Europe has errupted into a million dollar industry with carved bullets going for anywhere between $60 to $100 dollars each in a recent Bonham’s auction in London. The vast majority of items sold however are handled through online auction websites which has led to a creation of replica pieces diluting trust in the industry.

Post written by WWPL intern Brendan Dodson

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