Friday, 2 November 2012


Have you ever wandered into some funky old shop somewhere in China town, or a backstreet pawnbrokers, or even an upscale collectable store and found something different? An old piece of crudely worked brass that after a few questions you discover is something called Trench Art. It’s an old shell casing made into something else. Turn it over and there are undecipherable and vaguely legible markings. It’s history. I’m lucky; I work in that world.

Where did they come from?

 Spent shells were illicitly scavenged from massive mounds by both soldiers and civilians alike to become personal souvenirs or to swap or sell on. Spent artillery shells were crafted, often using a hammer and a bent nail. The crafting of trench art offered momentary relief from the hells experienced in the trenches. Through concentrating on making the vase the maker can think of something else other than the horrific realities of trench, for a moment in time, he is in control of what he experiences. The finished result was often sent to a relative as a souvenir from the Western Front. However, the souvenir represented much more than something to be aesthetically appreciated for it was embodied with experiences of being on the Western Front. In the decades following the Great War, some trench art became consigned to an attic as people, perhaps, no longer needed to remember. As the owners died, such trench art became objects of collector appeal as they were sold, for example, at military fairs, garage sales, or on eBay.


 What does it mean?

It depends on what it is, and what you see. This one is 57mm across, it’s a shell casing.  

 Modern Canadian Naval guns are 57mm caliber, but the modern shells don’t look like this thing.

Look at those funny marks on the bottom. “6 pounder”, isn’t that a second world war anti-tank gun? But this thing says 1917, how is that possible? 

A little research says that there was a 6 pounder, a naval gun from before 1900, so where did this thing come from. It turns out HMCS Rainbow was armed with 6 pounders. A little more research and it turns out those 6 pounders were taken off when Rainbow was decommissioned in 1917 and were still in use as late as 1945. This shell says 1917, and maybe, just maybe, it was fired from a gun originally on Canada’s first warship. That’s History, a connection to a world that’s gone but whose echoes are all around us.

  What about these weird looking things? 


The bottom says they were made from an 18 pounder shell manufactured in 1913.

 This other shell was produced in 1916 after the great shell crises.

You can see that the one from 1916 is different. It’s made with different production methods. It means mass production, and women in factories and the beginnings of a whole new world.

 It’s all on the back of a shell casing.  It’s a message to us from the past telling us how they lived and how they made the future we live in.