Both during and between battles, trench life during the First World War was fraught with dangers such as bursting artillery shells and enemy snipers. Despite this, trench life was also one of routine. In the mornings there was stand-to, which often gave way to the “morning hate” which involved firing artillery shells, machine guns, and small arms into the morning mist.
After the “hate” was over, the men were issued rum, cleaned their rifles, and completed chores such as re-filling sandbags, repairing trench walls and duckboards, and building latrines. As most of the activity happened in the trenches under the cover of darkness, once the daytime chores were complete, the men were at their leisure to read and write letters, keep a diary, gamble, etc. One way of passing the time was the creation of what is known as trench art; art that was created from found objects at the front, such as spent artillery shells and ammunition, and later brought or sent home as mementos and keepsakes of their experiences.
There are several pieces of trench art found within the museum’s collection. Not only does each piece show the creativity of using found objects, but each piece can also tell several stories including that of the soldiers who created them, and the battles they represent.
Lieutenant Colonel George Whitford Nelson
G.W. Nelson served with the 2nd Contingent of the 18th Battalion CEF. In early 1916, Nelson’s hand was shattered as the result of an artillery shell bursting nearby. He was hurled several feet and knocked unconscious by the concussion of the blast. His wound became infected and healed very slowly. He was sent home to Canada in late 1916, and was posted to headquarters in London, Ontario. There he stayed on and was posted to the demobilization depot in 1919. After the war, he owned and operated a hardware store in Harriston, and later in Scarborough.
Both pieces of trench art brought back by Nelson, one from a 45mm Howitzer and the other from a French 75mm field gun, are the types of artillery shells that would have been used by the CEF forces and French forces and date from his Nelson’s time at the Front.
William Charles Donaldson
William Charles Donaldson enlisted with the 160th Bruce Battalion on January 24, 1916, at Southampton. Upon arrival to England, he was isolated for several weeks due to having the mumps. He was then transferred to the 4th Reserve Battalion, then to the 23rd Reserve Battalion and then to the 14th Battalion. He went to France in March of 1918 and served there for 10 months. On November 24, 1918, he sprained his right ankle and was removed from the field to hospital in England, where he stayed until he was demobilized in 1919.
This small knife has “Lens” on one side of the blade. Lens, a small town in France is near where the Battle of Hill 70 took place in 1917. Though Donaldson wasn’t sent to the Front until after the battle had taken place, he was transferred to the 14th Battalion, an outfit which likely had been there as part of the 4th Canadian Division. Lens is also an area that moved between occupation as boundaries changed, and Donaldson may have spent time there though the battle named after the town was over.
This piece of trench art was made by an unknown soldier and is engraved with “SOUVENIR D’YPRES” and the dates 1914, 1915 and 1916. The back has two large plants engraved with two crossed flags between them. The artillery shell is for an 18- pound artillery canon and has the Canadian military proof mark. The area around Ypres in Belgium was much contested over, and the Second Battle of Ypres, in 1915, marked the first time deadly chlorine gas was used on the battlefield, and where Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders’ Fields”. After a month of fighting, victory was claimed by the allied forces, but with many casualties. Canadian forces were there again in 1917 for the Battle of Passchendaele also known as the Third Battle of Ypres.