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How to discover your own version of trench art
by Steve Leveen

Wandering in an antiques shop, I spotted, across a cluttered space, a solitary vase. Normally, a vase wouldn’t attract my attention but something about this one did. It was some kind of hammered brass or bronze, a perfect cylinder and tall. As I came closer I saw that it had an image beaten into the metal. I picked it up and saw it depicted two doves holding in their beaks a ribbon with a single word in script letters: Verdun.

The proprietor came over and said, “Know what that is?” “No, I guess I don’t,” I answered. “It’s trench art,” he said matter-of-factly. “The soldiers used to make vases out of spent artillery shells.”
I turned it over and sure enough, on the bottom there were military-type markings and that precise flange around the bottom—the unmistakable shape of a shell. “Amazing,” I finally managed. “So they actually made art while waiting....” I didn’t finish what I was thinking.

I bought the piece for $60 and brought it home. I explained to my young sons, “This might be the ultimate example of ‘When the world gives you lemons, make lemonade.’ Can you imagine doing this when stuck in a miserable trench waiting to be sent over the top into machine-gun fire?”

What was known at the time as The Great War—World War I—has just now passed out of living memory. Today we must rely on books, movies, and museums to learn what it was like. Trench warfare was born in that war and with it came unprecedented carnage. The historian William Manchester wrote in The Last Lion, “In the course of an average day on the western front, there were 2,533 men on both sides killed in action, 9,121 wounded, and 1,164 missing.” Between explosions, usually from artillery miles away, “they lived with rats and lice, amid the stench of urine, feces, and decaying flesh....” Who wouldn't try to take his mind away?

You can find trench art around if you look for it. Search eBay and you’ll find examples you can buy for the price of a dinner. Or to see more rare pieces, visit the Imperial War Museum in London. There you can see remarkable specimens in the large exhibition on trench warfare.

Trench art took the form of poetry as well. The late British aircraft engineer and author Nevil Shute lost his older brother in the trenches and was due to go himself when the war ended. In his Slide Rule: The Autobiography of an Engineer, he tells of a gifted schoolmaster named Phillip Bainbrigge who was drafted in the last year of the war despite his obvious physical limitations. He wrote this sonnet in the trenches:

Soon after that was written, Bainbrigge was dead.

Today we are surrounded by boundless creativity in the arts and sciences. Millions of people, in their own unique ways, are working successfully to create beautiful things that help make the world a better place. But never have I understood so well the human urge to create as when I held a vase made in the trenches and hefted that embodiment of human spirit.