Trench art: Sappers and shrapnel

Sera Waters, work inspired by trench art
Sera Waters, The Beginning, 2014, cotton embroidery, found wooden frame. Collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia (D. B. Baker Bequest Fund, 2014). Courtesy the artist and the Art Gallery of South Australia. © the artist  

In the literature on war art, trench art barely rates a mention. In fact, few people have even heard of the term. Coined during the First World War, trench art (derived from artisanat-de-tranchées) describes a heterogenous body of objects crafted from war-related material by servicemen and women, prisoners of war and even civilians. According to trench art scholar Nicholas J. Saunders, central to this loose definition is the spatial or temporal connection with armed conflict or its consequences.[1] Trench art from the early twentieth century is contemporaneous with the material vanguard of modernism: the readymade, the found object and collage. It, too, espouses a material modernism, grounded in folk and artisanal practices, which in its battlefield origin, is largely at odds with the anti-war messages of the Dadaists. Saunders acknowledges the connection between these material manifestations of modernity, quoting Fernand Léger’s declaration that “it was in the trenches that I really seized the reality of objects”.[2]

The trench art objects made by Australian Sapper, Stanley K. Pearl, provide some of the most illuminating biographies of the First World War and a window into the industry and ingenuity of these everyday artisans. Crafted from the detritus of war – from shells, shell cases, shrapnel, badges, buttons and purloined enemy artillery – Pearl’s oeuvre signals a resilience, resourcefulness and an inventiveness that strikes a chord, with contemporary art and artists working one hundred years later. From the Tasmanian town of Ulverstone, Pearl enlisted in November 1915, embarked from Sydney in March 1916 and arrived at Alexandria the following month, before being sent to France where he served as a sapper with the Australian Fifth Field Company Engineers from August 1916 until the end of the war. A sapper’s tasks included general engineering duties aimed at impeding the enemy, along with trench construction and repair (the root of the word sapper is the archaic French word sap meaning spade).

In Pearl we find the quintessential trench artist and sapper with his cleverly crafted objects frequently made from the enemy’s resources. During his long service, Pearl made numerous trench art objects that are now held in the collection of the Australian War Memorial, where Pearl subsequently worked as a carpenter. Amongst his panoply of transformed militaria is a wall plaque in the shape of Tasmania. Even more remarkable, perhaps, than the objects themselves are Pearl’s careful and eloquently written notes documenting when, where and how the objects were made, underscoring the transformation of the enemy’s military resources into a type of personal heraldry, one that also reveals a biography of the enemy: “This plaque, in the form of a map of Tasmania, was constructed at Armentieres in 1917. The elm was from furniture taken from a German dugout at Vaulx-Vraucourt; the facings from the equipment of a German officer, captain of the 152nd Regiment, shot while on patrol near Houplines, and shows the hole in the belt buckle made by the bullet that killed him. The signal wire insulator and button are from the Butte de Warlencourt.” [3]

Sapper Pearl map of Tasmania trench art
Sapper Stanley Keith Pearl, Trench Art Map of Tasmania, 1917, wood, aluminium, brass, silver, ceramic. Collection of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra 

What, then, is the contemporary relevance of these objects, crafted one hundred years ago from the detritus of war? And what does trench art have in common with art made today? Trench art is an expression of an intrinsic human need to make art for survival, rejecting its status as a luxury commodity. Whether intended as trophies of war, souvenirs for those at home, or talismans for the battle ahead, trench art reminds us of art’s inalienable power and necessity. Such a reminder is useful right now. A century on from Sapper Pearl’s arrival in Europe, he has a “brother” in artist Tony Albert. Albert’s perspective on war is also a personal one: his grandfather and seven of his grandfather's eight children served in the Australian armed forces. Albert’s figures are larger than life – imitating the monumentalising role of memorials the world over – in a physical aggrandisement that amounts to hagiography in the status we accord to all soldiers. That is, until recently, with the notable exception of Aboriginal soldiers, whose war efforts have been largely ignored. By carrying the title Universal Soldier, the figures become representative of every soldier and every war, every win and every loss. The title also references Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 1964 song by the same name. But in Albert’s version of the story, Aboriginal soldiers gave their bodies as “weapons of the war” without due acknowledgement.

Cast in silhouette, the face of the wounded soldier is made from a spoon rack in the shape of Australia. This familiar contour that recurs in trench art is a popular motif, also found in sweetheart jewellery, identity bracelets, picture frames and other souvenirs of war. The map of Australia recurs throughout Albert’s oeuvre, positioned always as a question rather than a statement of fact. Albert’s maps remind us that it is Aboriginal people, the first Australians, who have been the last to be considered Australian, despite fighting for the nation. The two figures are comprised of kitsch Australiana, some of which can be classified in Albert’s nomenclature as Aboriginalia – souvenirs depicting Aboriginal people that were produced in abundance mid-last century. These souvenirs found their way into homes the world over at a time when Aboriginal people became homelessness, carried off country into assimilation and incarceration. Such romanticised and ultimately elegiac depictions of Aboriginal people, applied using repoussé on copper panel, oil paint on black velvet or pokerwork onto timber, recall the craft and folk art processes at work in the trenches where spent brass artillery shells frequently became embossed vases.  By choosing to use camouflage (another word that gained currency during the First World War) to unify the found objects, Albert signals the colonisation of the natural world that also occurs during times of war.

Tony Albert, Universal Soldier
Tony Albert, Universal Soldier, 2014, assemblage of re-worked objects, fabric and twine. Image courtesy of the artists and Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney

Albert’s Universal Soldier (2014) recalls and responds to the type of trench art objects made 100 years ago.  Like Albert, artist Sera Waters has long harboured a fascination for the handmade and the relic. In The beginning (2014) a found timber frame in the shape of Australia carries a proclamation in needlework: YOU ARE HERE. We are reminded through the coloured petit-point evocation of David Horton’s map of Aboriginal languages, that in this Australia, we are on Aboriginal land. As an unsettled settler, Waters troubles nationalism, using the found and the forged-by-hand as a mnemonic and a tool of resistance: ”I live here, in South Australia, as have some of my ancestors for nearly 180 years. Like them, I am not a homemaker but a settler. I build and stitch makeshift ‘homes’ atop this ancient land, whose inner workings remain mystifying and to which I have no historical ties (bar the humble lineage of settlers who have similarly sought resting places). I associate ‘home’ here, particularly in my darker moments, with uneasy foundations and an enduring obliviousness to what lies beneath and before.”[4] Waters’ practice and its expression of alienation and dis-ease resonates with the dislocation experienced by servicemen and women and the role of the handmade in providing solace and amelioration.

In the Australian War Memorial’s collection of trench art there are also beaded objects made by anonymous Turkish prisoners of war, many of whom (due to the breadth of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century) would have included Greek, Arab or Eastern European prisoners. Woven on small looms or made using crochet, the beaded artefacts are most commonly in the form of snakes. As symbols of good luck, these snakes perform an apotropaic function by protecting their wearers from further misfortune. These anonymously created objects collected by Australian soldiers offer cultural rather than specifically personal connections to provide a window onto a world where craft processes were not only a labour of love, a way of killing time, but also imbued with talismanic associations.

Unknown Soldier, work of trench art
Unknown Turkish Prisoner of War, beadwork snake, 1918, cotton, glass. Collection of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Arguably, the contemporary Australian artist best known for beaded work is Fiona Hall; for decades, she has used glass beads as the currency of trade and colonisation to remind us of our history and mortality. Comparisons with trench art can be readily drawn in Hall’s work created in collaboration with the Tjanpi Desert Weavers for exhibition in Whisper in my Mask, the 2014 TarraWarra Biennial curated by Natalie King and Djon Mundine. Substituting the glass beads for camouflage sourced from authentic military garments, found objects and desert grasses (used for millennia to sustain Aboriginal people), Hall and her Anangu collaborators from way out bush near Wingellina (Irrunytju) have created Kuka Irititja (translated from Pitjantjatjara as animals from other times) in reference to the native animals that have been endangered and displaced by introduced species in an ongoing war of environmental attrition. The direct reference to militaria through the deployment of camouflage and the appearance of war craft including helicopters is particularly redolent for those Anangu artists displaced by testing at Woomera and Maralinga last century. One hundred years on, this new work revives the proclamation of Dadaist Hugo Ball that “art is not an end in itself … but it is an opportunity for true perception and criticism of the times we live in”.[5]

In his extensive research, Nicholas J. Saunders has described the classificatory limbo wherein trench art resides. As awkward museum objects – as curios and souvenirs – trench art bedevils traditional categories, resonating with meanings that are personal, patriotic, political and often apotropaic. Contemporary art relishes the awkward, the curious and the liminal, with the best of it springing from the fissures of life where artists as modern-day sappers can transform the shrapnel of the everyday.

Tjanpi installation, TarraWarra
Roma Butler, Yangi Yangi Fox, Rene Kulitja, Niningka Lewis, Stacia Lewis, Molly Miller, Angkaliya Nelson, Rene Nelson, Mary Pan, Sandra Peterman, Tjawina Roberts, Nyanu Watson and Fiona Hall, Tjurrpa Kumpilitja (Hidden Stories) Kuka Irititja (Animals from other times), 2014, minarri grass, acrylic wool, raffia, found wire netting, wire, camouflage military garments, linen thread, buttons, ininti seed, emu feathers, turkey feathers, aluminium, glass, metalfound tins and cooking pots. Commissioned by TarraWarra Museum of Art for the Tarrawarra Biennial, 2014. Courtesy the artists, Tjanpi Desert Weavers, NPY Women’s Council, NPY Lands, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. ©Roma Butler and Niningka Lewis/Licensed by Viscopy 2015. Fiona Hall is represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney


  1. ^ Nicholas J. Saunders, ‘Bodies of Metal, Shells of Memory: “Trench Art”, and the Great War Re-cycled’, Journal of Material Culture 5:43, 2000. Saunders points out that while the term had its origin in the First World War, the phenomenon of trench art has accompanied conflict since at least the fifth century. 
  2. ^ Nicholas J. Saunders, Trench Art: Materialities and Memories of War, Oxford: Berg, 2003.
  3. ^ From the online catalogue at
  4. ^ From
  5. ^ Hugo Ball, A Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary (edited with an introduction by John Elderfield), University of California Press, 1996, p. 58. 

Lisa Slade is Project Curator at the Art Gallery of South Australia. She is currently working on a trench art project drawing on the collection of the Australian War Memorial and featuring the art of contemporary artists Tony Albert, Olga Cironis, Nicholas Folland, Brett Graham, Richard Lewer, Alasdair McLuckie, Ben Quilty and Sera Waters. The Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture Fund have funded the first stage of this project.