The National WWII Museum’s latest special exhibit, SOLDIER | ARTIST: Trench Art in World War II, is on view through January 2, 2022.
Postcards fade. Uniforms fray. Flags disintegrate. Too often, pieces of prized World War II memorabilia survive combat only to lose the fight against time.
What do frequently remain, popping up years later at flea markets and yard sales, are hand-hewn relics made from trash—scraps of metal, wood, and plastic, transformed by servicemen into objects playful and practical. Loosely categorized as “trench art,” more than 150 examples of these artworks, keepsakes, and tools are on display at The National WWII Museum through January 2, 2022.
Coined during World War I, the phrase “trench art” refers to the tradition of amateur craftsmen making objects “out of things that would otherwise be considered just the wastes of war,” explains Tom Czekanski, senior curator at the museum and organizer of its latest special exhibit, SOLDIER | ARTIST: Trench Art in World War II.
Revolutionary War prisoners built ship models out of meat bones; Civil War soldiers carved talismans from lead bullets. By World War I, brass gun cartridges were being recycled into durable trinkets, and World War II brought about materials like Plexiglass and aluminum, mostly used in airplanes. Thanks to these technological advances, objects cobbled together out of necessity or ennui were more inclined to last.
Infantrymen engaged in fighting were the least likely combatants to make or keep trench art; as Czekanski points out, they were too busy “staying alive.” As for sailors on ships, soldiers at camps, and prisoners of war, idle hands and plentiful materials likely triggered the itch to create. But, as Czekanski says, “there’s probably something there in the notion that in the midst of destroying the world, they wanted to make something—even if it was just an ashtray.” ✯
All photos courtesy of The National WWII Museum
This article was published in the October 2021 issue of World War II.