Keeping the theme of Veteran’s Day in mind, November’s selection for the Lynchburg Museum System’s "Awesome Artifact" is a relic from World War II. The above ashtray belonged to Lynchburg resident John G. White, who served in Holland. What may actually look like a useful souvenir actually symbolizes two significant things: the genre of trench art in art history, which can be highly collectible, and even more so, the historical event to which the artifact is linked.

Right: As far as materials used, the base is fashioned from a brass 105mm M14 Type 1 artillery shell casing, with other parts constructed from varying sizes of bullets.

Left: Two coins bearing the profile of the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina are welded to the side. Engraved along the sides it says "SPekholzerheide John G. White Holland 1945 Souvenir." John G. White later worked as a custodian in the Circuit Court of Lynchburg from 1955-1981.

Military souvenirs and relics have always existed through history but the actual term "trench" art came from a specific time period. World War I was known for its trench warfare but also for the art that evolved during that time.

Source: http://makinghistoryatnorthumbria.wordpress.com/tag/battle-of-the-somme/

As seen in the above photo from WWI's Battle of the Somme, there was no shortage of artillery shell casings, and many were often engraved with names, dates, and illustrations of previous battles. Bullets, aluminum, buttons, shrapnel, empty ammunition clips, and other items were picked up off of the battlefields and became personal mementos or artistic assemblages of souvenirs. The creation of trench art was not often done by the entrenched, though the men had long periods of boredom between fighting. Items were frequently made away from the battlefields and trenches as the hammering of metal and other processes used to create the art would have given one’s position away to the enemy. In her book Trench Art: An Illustrated History, author Jane Kimball lists several categories that these artworks fall into and the reasons for their creation:

  • War souvenirs collected by soldiers or non-combatants during the war and during the demobilization period and modified in some way to serve as a remembrance of the war.
  • Souvenirs crafted by soldiers during the war.
  • Souvenirs made for sale to soldiers by other soldiers or civilians during the war.
  • Souvenirs made by prisoners of war in exchange for food, cigarettes or money.
  • Mementos of the war made by convalescent soldiers.
  • Post-war souvenirs made for tourists visiting the battlefields.
  • Post-war souvenirs made by commercial firms in trench-art style.

White’s trench art ashtray is specifically linked to the liberation of the Dutch city Spekholzerheide, located in province of Limburg in the Netherlands. In this case, the Museum knows all of this because the artifact made it clear by its markings. Many trench art pieces do not have such wonderful information written on them! However, it is not known whether White (or a fellow soldier) made the souvenir by hand or if he purchased it. The town was liberated from the Germans by the Allied forces on September 17, 1944. The Dutch had been neutral during the first World War and maintained their neutrality until the Nazis invaded in 1940. Though the Nazis felt the Dutch themselves were nearly pure in their Aryan descent, many Jews had come to the Netherlands to escape the persecution across Europe.

Queen Wilhelmina left her country and rallied against the Nazis from afar. Although living in an occupied nation caused hardship, the true suffering of the Dutch people did not begin until after the D-Day invasion in June 1944. In response to the invasion, the Germans blockaded food coming into the Netherlands, causing a horrific famine. This famine, which lasted until the liberation in the fall of 1944, resulted in the deaths of many and severe mal-nourishment caused lasting maladies in the survivors.

Trench art is a genre which will continue to remain active as long as war is waged. As mentioned above, the categories are broad as well as the range of materials used. Some of these mementos may be akin to trophies, memorials to lost friends, or on the shelf for purchase in battlefield gift shops. The Lynchburg Museum is fortunate to have such an amazing artifact from a local veteran who was there to witness the inevitable fall of Hitler's Nazis.

Trench Art: An Illustrated History, http://www.trenchart.org/ (accessed 11/07/13).

Survival and Resistance: The Netherlands Under Nazi Occupation,

http://www2.webster.edu/~woolflm/netherlands.html (accessed 11/12/13).

Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study, http://www.dutchfamine.nl/index_files/study.html (accessed 11/14/13).

- C.P. DeSilvey, Curatorial Assistant, Lynchburg Museum System