Material Memories – WWI North East Trench Art

By Judith Phillips

In the second lecture in the current series, Andrew Marriott from Newcastle University introduced us to a different aspect of the First World War – trench art.  Andrew explained that this developed from a naval tradition.  Sailors would make objects – ‘scrimshaw’ – from material they found during their voyages and sell them.  During the First World War, British, Empire and Commonwealth, French, Belgian and German soldiers all made trench art.  Andrew explained that the crucial factor is that the objects must be made from material found in trenches – bullets, shells, wooden packing cases, even bootlaces and Army biscuits!

Trench art can be found in archaeological digs, on rubbish tips, ploughed up as part of the ‘iron harvest’ in Flanders, but mainly as cherished family memorabilia.  Andrew is particularly interested in objects that have an associated story and he has conducted several ‘artefact-centred interviews’ where the object prompts the narrative.  Not all trench art has a story – the object has become detached from its background and the story was often just word of mouth.  Even the Helmand Cross from the relatively-recent Afghanistan campaign is without a known artist.

Trench art comes in many shapes – rings, bracelets, jugs, cigarette lighters, matchboxes, dice and crosses.  Andrew has several examples on display, and we were able to add a few from the project, including some painted mess plates which were new to Andrew!  And trench art is made for a range of different purposes.  It can be a personal memento, protective amulet, gift to family at home, practical item, source of income, community memorial.  Given that cigarette smoking was much more common then, many of the objects are related to smoking.  They can also be witty and a little subversive, like the Army biscuit inscribed ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. 

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One of the most poignant examples in the north-east is the three Butte de Warlencourt crosses.  These were originally erected in November 1916 to commemorate the 904 men from the 6th, 8th and 9th battalions of the DLI reported dead, wounded or missing after the capture of the Butte.  Made from wooden packing cases, they were decaying a dozen years later, so they were brought back to County Durham and deposited in Durham Cathedral, the church of St Mary and St Cuthbert in Chester-le-Street and the church of St Andrew in Bishop Auckland.  All three are currently on display in Durham Cathedral until 20th November.  Andrew pointed out signatures and names added to the wooden plinth of the Durham Cathedral cross – and asked if we considered it graffiti, vandalism or commemoration.

Andrew ended with his research into the composition and source of the metal used in medals from the Victoria Cross, first awarded in the Crimea War, through to the Second World War – a strange mixture of myth and modern scientific investigation.  If you have any trench art with north-east connections, Andrew would like to hear from you (andrew.marriott@newcastle.ac.uk).  After questions we had time to look at the trench art on display – a suitable ending to a fascinating afternoon.

The next lecture is on Saturday 12th November at 2.30 when Professor Jeremy Dibble from Durham University will talk about the profound effect the war had on British composers and illustrate his lecture with recordings.  Tickets cost £3 including light refreshments (FREE with museum admission and for Friends of the Museum) and can be bought through the museum Reception (01833 690606).