Brought to you by the Sullivan Museum and History Center

#216 – Wartime Beauty

Archer Greenhalgh 200 Things about Norwich, Fun Facts & Stats

By Joseph E. Cates, Curator of Education and Public Programs

The tradition of artistically handcrafting war souvenirs goes back to ancient times, but the practice flourished during the First World War. The abundance of items created by soldiers in World War I, and in the years immediately after, gave rise to the term trench art.  Over time, the term has become generalized to refer to art made from ordnance or military equipment from any era often commemorating a specific battle, area of the trenches, or just the division of the army in which the soldier served.

Some trench art was actually made in the trenches. Other examples were made by soldiers convalescing in hospitals or shortly after the war before being sent home. The pieces were made as personal souvenirs for family or sold to other soldiers to earn money. Local civilians and laborers supporting the armies also crafted items from war debris they collected.

During the war, steel M1917 helmets worn by the Doughboys were unadorned. Unit insignia were the first objects painted on helmets, but this was rare before the cessation of hostilities due to concern that the enemy would gain information by seeing the insignia. After the end of the war, the Doughboy artists began painting insignia, itinerary, maps, pseudo-camouflage, and battle scenes.

The helmet you see here is an example of trench art made with the M1917 helmet. This helmet was presumably hand painted by an American soldier. The main feature in the front is the 3rd Army “A” insignia with a white star above and two chevrons below. The “A” is flanked by an American Flag on the left and a French flag on the right. Across the top is written “France 1918–1919 Germany.” The back of the helmet depicts the Fourth Corps insignia, a circle divided into four triangular segments. The helmet was painted to commemorate the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which began on September 26, 1918.

We are unsure who actually wore this helmet or who painted it. This particular helmet was donated by Eubern “Sonny” Frost, who found it at a yard sale in Northfield in 2012 and donated it to the museum. The helmet is currently on view in the gallery for 200 Years—200 Objects.