The Vase of Death

A BIT OF HISTORY: Random Stuff From Annette's Collection

Behold, the Vase of Death!

No, this vase doesn’t do Voldemort-style magic. If you stick your hand in it, you won’t vanish in a puff of smoke.

So why the name?

There’s a story! What, you wanted a straight answer? Then you’re in the wrong place! That’s not how historians work, because a straight answer, a sound bite, a Tweet? Please. That’s junk food for the mind. I want you to have ideas you can use, the ideas that we call thinking historically!

So, a story it is!

I picked up the Vase of Death in an antiques shop somewhere in the UK. It’s associated with World War I, and it’s a bit of what’s called trench art.

Aha! (you think) Some poor soul in the trenches made this lovely object in his last hours before going over the top to stagger across barbed wire to certain death in the teeth of machine-gun fire.

But wait. Think about this. Does it seem likely to you that these guys made something like this vase here?

WWI soldiers in trench
Not looking particularly artistic in their metalworking studio, are they? “Nice bayonet you got there, mate. You make that?” “Don’t be so bloody stupid.” Image: Public Domain

Yes, well, no. Does this trench look like a place equipped with the kind of tools that exhausted soldiers could use to make the Vase of Death?

Part of the problem is that phrase: Trench art. It implies that the Vase of Death was made in a trench by infantry. The pieces made by World War I soldiers that appear in museums, however, are typically attributed to, say, a medical orderly (not always to be found in a trench), or the chap who operated the telephone exchange safely underground. So, not in trenches.

A Closer Look . . .

The Vase of Death has “Aisne” engraved right across it. This apparently commemorates the Battle(s) of the Aisne, a river in France where a lot of WWI battling took place.

The Vase was indeed made in France. It was repurposed from an exploded munitions shell or, for all us “couldn’t give a toss about military history” types, an exploding cannon thingy. Look, here’s the base:

The Vase wasn’t made by a soldier, and it wasn’t made during World War I. It was made after the war. And it was made by a French civilian or veteran.

What?? Were the French forging trench art? Sacre Bleu! Mon Dieu! Quel horreur!

No. This is an object lesson in “Let’s leap to conclusions because it’s fun, but then let’s take a step back and consider that we may not, in fact, know our arse from our elbow, as the Brits say.”

Let’s Go on Holiday to a Mass Graveyard!

Picture it (Golden Girls fans, this one’s for you): London, January, 1928

A middle-class English family (man, woman, boy, girl) have just finished supper.

Father (lights pipe, coughs asthmatically): I have been giving some thought to our summer holiday this year.

Daughter (excitedly): Gosh, Daddy, are we going camping in Wales?

Son: Or to the seaside at Bognor Regis? Do tell, Father!

Father (in his most important voice): As you all know, this year marks the tenth anniversary of the Armistice, the end of the Great War, in which I served, and your poor Uncle Freddy gave his life for our country. I have decided that we shall take our very first holiday abroad, to France. We shall visit the place where dear old Freddy died.

[Kids look crestfallen]

Mother (quietly): Well, I was rather hoping for the Lake District.

A small town on the Aisne, France, August, 1928. Same family enter a tourist gift shop. Doorbell clangs.

Shopkeeper (standing behind counter): Bonjour, monsieur, madame! Bienvenue!

Mother (to Father) (muttering): Dear? Your French is better than mine.

Father: Ah, yes. Um. Mais oui, Madame. Je voudrais acheter, that is, um, un souvenir de notre visite.

Shopkeeper: Yes, sir, you are wanting a holiday keepsake for your family? Perhaps not, shall we say, too expensive?

Father (clearly relieved): Oh, yes! I mean, oui, madame.

Shopkeeper: D’accord. I have the perfect present for you. Voila!

[Produces the Vase of Death from a big box of Vases of Death behind the counter]

Upcycled Art Before Upcycled Art was a Thing

The Vase of Death was what we now call upcycled art. What’s more, it was mass-produced, and long, long before the first hipstery artist in Brooklyn or Bethnal Green first uttered the words “upcycled art”.

That’s because the French had a huge litter problem by 1918, and nobody had yet invented “recycling”, either. The litter was the remains of a massive conflict that killed millions, the First World War (it wasn’t called that yet, because they didn’t know about the sequel).

Here, as one of many, many, many examples of the mess left behind, this photo of a French forest a century ago shows us a humongous pile of old shell casings, like the one that made the Vase of Death:

Massive pile of WWI shells
Just a few million of the millions of shell casings (aka future Vases of Death) left in France by the end of World War I. European Armies did not follow the “pack it in, pack it out” rule. Image: Public Domain

Not long after the War ended, veterans began to return to the battlefields to reminisce, and they often brought their families. They also brought money into a devastated rural economy.

Watching tourists begin to arrive, entrepreneurial and creative, yet broke, French folk looked at all those empty shell casings, and saw potential profit.

They were right.

Vases were probably the most popular adaptation of former shell cases, but there were others. Can you guess what this repurposed shell casing was later used for?

Leave a comment

So What’s the Upshot, If You Will Forgive the Expression?

  • Names can deceive: Trench art was almost never made in trenches, by World War I soldiers, or during the war itself. Confusingly, the phrase “trench art” has come to describe art made by soldiers in the field (or not) in other wars, and/or art made from repurposed war materiel.

  • Buyer beware is the watchword for antiques. If it’s cheap and you like it, why not? But if you’re looking for an investment, you had better know what you’re doing . . . and most of us don’t. I spent £100 (about $130) for an object in London I wanted to use in my school programs, and a decade later, I bought a second one of the exact same object in the north of England for just £30. For the record, I bought the Vase of Death intending to show it in my World War I program for schools, and fortunately didn’t spend much on it, because it’s a pain to schlep around.

  • Most of all: If you’re tempted to jump to conclusions, take a deep breath, and look it up in a reliable source instead (mine? The Imperial War Museum site). I think that’s a pretty timely public service message from Non-Boring House.

Leave a comment