Past Treasure of the Month – December 2006

WWII Trench Art
Cigarette lighter

This ca. 1918 cigarette lighter is
made from two brass roundels of the
same type found on Imperial German
military uniform belts.
The roundels bear the motto
“Gott Mitt Uns” meaning
“God is With Us.” It was sent to
the donor by her brother,
Capt. Herbert A. Robertson,
while he was in Europe during WWI
(donated by the Estate of
Mrs. Z. L. White).

“Trench art” refers to decorated objects, souvenirs, or mementos made by soldiers, civilians, or prisoners of war during World War I. Many examples of trench art were crafted by soldiers in exchange for food, cigarettes, or money; others were made by the wounded and convalescent in hospitals. Objects commonly used to make trench art were artillery shell fragments and casings, enemy helmets, and military uniform buttons. Shell fragments were often painted or embossed and used as vases. Jewelry such as lockets and rings were fashioned from aluminum cans. Wood from airplane propellers was used to carve clocks and picture frames.

Model submarine

Model submarine crafted
from cartridge shells, ca. 1918.
This model submarine was made by a
German prisoner of war and was
collected by John W. McCullough
while he was serving in the
US Army of Occupation
(donated by Dr. Edward and Mrs. Sally Futch).

Prisoners of war produced a number of decorative artifacts for sale to the soldiers and civilians living near the internment camps. Items like matchbox covers, cigarette cases, and lighters were purchased by the prisoners of war captors. Other objects such as wallets, napkin rings, and painted boxes were sent home to family members as souvenirs. For the most part, trench art pieces bear no signature or maker’s mark. Even today, the identity of these anonymous artisans remains a mystery.

The Rosenberg Library has several examples of trench art from World War I in its museum collection. These include two brass cigarette lighters, a model submarine made from shell cartridges, a letter opener decorated with a copper pfennig (German coin), and an ashtray featuring a miniature Prussian helmet called a “pickelhaube.”