Saturday, 26 February 2005

Top brass from bloody battles

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By Christopher Proudlove©

French prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars incarcerated in the hulks of English prison ships made pictures from the straw of their bedding.

Using the mutton bones and scavenged from the kitchens, they made sets of miniature dominoes or in rarer cases fine models of the ships on which they served. Rarer still, and in somewhat macabre taste, are the intricate and elaborate working models of Madam Guillotine made in the same fashion.

English sailors, meanwhile, embroidered pictures of ships on discarded pieces of sailcloth or, if you believe the folklore, they made elaborate valentines for their sweethearts from exotic seashells, which they collected on voyages in tropical waters.

Those serving on whaling ships, which meant months at sea with very little to do, carved naive pictures on to whales' teeth or other pieces of marine ivory, known collectively today as scrimshaw.

In most cases, but not necessarily all, such knickknacks and novelties were made to sell to raise money to supplement income or purchase food to eke out meagre rations.

The exceptions were probably intended as love tokens, such as the sailors' shell valentines or the lace bobbins and stay busks carved from wood and animal bone and decorated with pretty patterns and the names of the girls for whom they were intended.

And then there are the objects illustrated here. Love tokens they are most certainly not.

This week marks the anniversary of the start of the battle of Verdun, the longest and one of the bloodiest engagements of the First World War. Two million men were engaged in this single conflict which alone cost in excess of 650,000 lives. A British offensive on the Somme relieved the pressure on Verdun in July, 1916, and by December the French had recovered most of the ground lost.

Collecting objects relating to the so-called war to end all wars brings mixed emotions, but somehow the charming vases, ashtrays, money boxes, and paper knives fashioned with skill and ingenuity from the tools of war -- the shell cases and bullets that brought death and destruction -- are somewhat more palatable given their often amazing transformation.

The typical example of this so-called trench art is the single or pair of massive brass shell cases -- hammered, chased, cut and engraved and then polished to a gleaming shine to be turned into vases or umbrella holders.

The romantic idea that they were made by bored Tommies up to their knees in mud in the trenches is as amusing as it is unlikely. However, they have one thing in common: all were made by men with time on their hands.

How much of it was made in the trenches is open to debate, but the likelihood of the necessary tools and equipment being available to cut, hammer and solder the brass detritus of war whilst waiting to go over the top is unlikely.

More possible is the idea that most of it was made in workshops behind the front lines by trained engineers, using machinery capable of producing such remarkable results but probably at times when they would otherwise be idle.

Trench art falls into the following categories: souvenirs made by soldiers from what they found lying around and taken home for their own use; souvenirs made by soldiers or prisoners of war sold to other soldiers or exchanged for food, cigarettes or money; souvenirs made by convalescent soldiers possibly as manipulative therapy and souvenirs made by commercial businesses for sale either to soldiers going home or to tourists visiting battlefields.


The difficulty is distinguishing one from the others, but the interesting thing is that in most cases it is possible to be certain of authenticity. Shell cases are almost always stamped with dates and bear War Department official markings that to my knowledge have never been faked.

This is not surprising. Trench art has been somewhat overlooked by collectors and perhaps the current lack of interest in collecting brass -- presumably people don't want the hassle of polishing the stuff -- means prices remain affordable.

We visited the collectors’ fair at Port Sunlight last Sunday and picked up the two letter openers illustrated here. The one marked Arras, in memory of the offensive there which ran from April 9 to May 15 1917, cost us the princely sum of a fiver, while the simpler anonymous example was a quid.

Shell cases are more expensive and the more elaborate the decoration, the more costly they become. Expect to pay up to £25 for a single large First World War shell cases and perhaps three times that for a pair with punched battle name or inscription and/or cut and shaped design.

Soldiers' passion for smoking is underlined by the large quantity of trench art devoted to the habit. The most intriguing cigarette lighters were made from bullets, the hollow detachable end being removable to disclose the wick and flint wheel.

Ashtrays were made by simply hacking off the rimmed foot of the shell to which was soldered shaped bullet casings to hold the burning cigarette.

More elaborate examples double as lidded cigarette cases, the lid being fashioned from another shell base which having been removed, served as an ashtray.

Looking like a giant sugar coaster, one of the most interesting uses of a shell case was to serve as a wine bottle holder, possibly intended for the officers' mess. An example is pictured here, decorated with tunic badges and standing on .303 bullets as feet.

The most sought after and arguably expensive examples of trench art relate to the Flying Corps. Biplanes made from scrap brass, usually with propellers that spin and standing on a brass base as if the plane is in mid-flight are the most valuable, particularly if the model is named and dated.

Not all trench art was made from brass, though. Rifle butts, broken ends of wooden propellers and even the crates used to pack ammunition were turned into cribbage boards, inkstands, wall plaques and other decorative mementoes and by amateur carvers with time on their hands.

Caring for your brassware

Trench art shells and objects made from them - like many other types of decorative brass household objects including horse brasses and candlesticks - have had a lifetime of assiduous polishing which over the years has almost completely obliterated the original designs. This not only reduces the artistic merit of a piece, but also drastically reduces values.

Old brass objects build up a beautiful patina over the years through the natural oxidation of the copper content and this needs to be preserved by careful handling and polishing.

Modern polishes can contain harmful chemicals, so be sure to read and follow the manufacturer's instructions. Apply the polish with a soft cloth or soft brush and keep a separate cloth for polishing.

Use a gentle circular movement and do not exert pressure on thin or heavily pierced and decorated areas. Light burnishing is all that should be required.

Reputable brands of long-term brass polish are generally best old pieces -- and they cut down on the number of times an object need to be polished, which is good both for the object and its owner!
TankInkwellthinTrench art  - vases made from artillery shellsbottleholderthin

Pictures show, left to right:

This inkwell is a model of a First World War tank inscribed “Souvenir 1917 1916 Lens Gambrai 1918”. Made from battlefield scrap brass, it’s worth £150-200.

A trio of First World War trench art vases showing the elaborate and intricate designs capable of being made from shell cases. The vase in the centre is inscribed in relief "Arras".

For the officers’ mess, perhaps, this wine bottle holder is decorated with regimental badges and stands on .303 bullets as feet.

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Anonymous shirley taylor said...

i have a pair of 1st ww trench art ashtrays they have a flame with a ball in the middle and a scroll under neath with the letters ubique i think one of the ball and flame has come off and they have been used could you give me an estimate of there value

26 August 2009 at 02:04  

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