Trench art

Trench art

Materials: Brass shellcase
Dimension: 30 centimeters tall
Place acquired: London antiques fair, 2012
Place of manufacture: Germany, 1917

In the month of July, 1917, a munitions factory somewhere in Germany made a 77mm artillery shell. It rolled off a production line along with thousands of others and from there it will have been transported by train to the western front. Finally, via a lorry or wagon or even a pack mule, it ended up at a German field gun emplacement somewhere in the vicinity of Bapaume, a town in north eastern France. At some point in the next few months it will have been snatched off a neat stack, shoved into the open breach of a field gun, and fired. The explosive shell itself will have whizzed off towards the Allied trenches with consequences that we will never know of. But its brass case – the cylinder that had contained and protected it thus far – will have been ejected from the rear of the gun to join a pile of identical shell cases. Its job done the brass case became part of the spent detritus of war.

On 29th August 1918 Allied troops finally recaptured the ruined town of Bapaume from the Germans, and the discarded shell case now lay on land held by the British army. Sometime in the final months of the war, a British Quartermaster Sergeant somewhere in this newly occupied territory must have had time on his hands because it seems he picked up this very shell case and somewhere behind the lines he set to work on it. With a hammer and punch he transformed it into a decorative container – a vase – to take back to Blighty with him as a souvenir. He hammered out a simple rose motif with its flower, stem and leaves twining around the middle of the case and then carefully etched the battle he was commemorating ‘BAPAUME’ underneath, and his own name, Q. M. S’GT. LAW, above.

The shell case became what we now call ‘trench art’. From our distance there seems to be a feeling of turning swords into ploughshares about these things, even a subtle anti-war message. But this is just the way that we have come to look at them from a distance of a full century. Our 'story' of World War 1 has become fixed as the tragic, pointless waste of a generation in the muddy trenches of Flanders. But almost certainly there was nothing like this in Sergeant Law’s mind back in 1918. His souvenir was not a yearning for peace and domesticity, but more probably a celebration of victory over the Boche, and the part he had played in it.

It may well have spent many years proudly displayed on Sergeant (now Mr) Law’s mantlepiece. But I bought it on an antique stall, so at some point, maybe after Mr Law died, it made the crucial transition from being a personal trophy displayed with personal pride, to being a commodity for collectors of trench art, to be bought and sold. Still to be displayed, but with a pride and a cultural sensibility of a different sort.