By Ron McGuire
In 1978, I acquired my first piece of trench art (TR). It was actually made in the trenches by Hugh Ronald Stewart of the Canadian Signals Corps. I named it a “cigarette saver,” because it was meant to save a partially smoked cigarette during an attack so it could be re-lit again later. It looks like a holder for a cake-size candle. It utilizes the bottom of a pocket watch for the base, to which a revolver shell for the ‘holder’ and a strip of tin from a bully beef can for the handle were attached.
Thus began my fascination with TR that was made from ugly armament parts meant to kill, maim and destroy. The reason for my fascination was that they were now objects created with ingenuity, skill and innovation. They were things that had new purpose, often adorned with intricate hammered and/or incised decoration, making some also truly beautiful works of art.
While TR has been made right through to recent years, in this article I focus on those made during and after the First World War.
In my opinion, TR is a misnomer. Relatively few examples were made in the trenches or battles zones. The majority was done by members of all services while on leave, convalescing from wounds in hospitals, or as prisoners of war. This is known as POW art.
After the war, veterans made their creations in their home, employers’ workshops, or in one of the 260 rehabilitation programs offered by the forerunner of Veterans Affairs Canada. They were also made and sold by commercial firms (see item 6), particularly jewelry. Civilians located near battle sites and military cemeteries were known to make similar objects to sell to tourists and families visiting the gravesites of thier loved ones.
There is virtually no end to what exists. In the collection I have ,objects on the following categorized lists were made during different eras. I know more examples can be added. Many of the listings exist in numerous variations, like vases, lamps and letter openers. They were made from a wide variety of materials. Some of these were aluminum, brass, copper and other metals, often in combinations, various types of wood, a variety of fabrics, and card and paper stock.
Readers can see part of my collection of TR and other handicrafts relating to the First World War in an exhibit in the Nepean Museum, which will be on display until July 2015.