Shell Art

Forgotten artworks of World War One are stark reminders of a generation of the men whose creativity flourished in the face of new forms of brutality.

The events of 1914 saw a dramatic change in the very nature of war. The introduction of tanks, which churned up the land, barbed wire and overhead bombing meant soldiers now faced new, previously unimaginable, forms of brutality.

Cold, wet, and riddled with vermin, soldiers were also left with long periods of waiting in the trenches. And yet, out of these conditions, emerged a variety of beautiful pieces of artwork, which are still around for us to see today.

Shell art is one of the most famous types produced in wartime. Soldiers carved intricate designs into the casings of artillery shells. Smaller ones were decorated and carried in pockets, larger ones taken home and made into vases.

The soldiers would use whatever tools they had available, creating a range of designs from detailed scenes of war or nature, to more crudely carved shells simply featuring with the names of loved ones.

Cave art also proliferated during World War One. Across France, soldiers used caves as hospitals and places of shelter. They could be underground for days at a time, but even with their limited resources they produced magnificent sculptures.

Carvings range from faces and to military insignia to religious depictions. In some caves, soldiers even carved complete altars into the walls.

Troops also created murals, making vivid and colourful displays in caves, bunkers and even army bases. The constant temperature and low humidity in these locations means many of the murals remain in excellent condition today.

Comparative studies of the type of artworks produced by soldiers during World War One suggest that German soldiers more often chose painting above carving – their bunkers providing a concrete canvas for their imaginative designs – while French soldiers worked with the natural surfaces of quarries and caves.

These artworks, which turn the instruments and environments of war into things of beauty, have become objects of fascination. Over the years, collectors have chiselled away at carvings and paintings, removing them for personal collections or even for sale.

Thankfully, new digital archives are recording the carvings so that they can be witnessed by future generations in years to come.

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Sarah Ashbridge

Office monkey by day, forensic archaeologist by night, Sarah Ashbridge is a jack-of-all-trades and the master of one: the forensic identification the War Dead. She trained originally as an Egyptologist, but interests in the history of death and burial saw her make the step into archaeology, completing an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation at the University of Bradford. Armed with an ever-increasing library of books, a handful of illustration pens and a brand new trowel, Sarah writes our regular #WWWednesday column, working towards her PhD in Forensic Archaeology.

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