Life in the trenches, living on

A hundred years ago, soldiers were dying by the thousand in the trenches of World War One. By many accounts, it was the most dreadful war the world had ever known: brand-new, horribly destructive technologies, untrained civilians suddenly shoved into a uniform and asked to murder strangers, the unimaginable conditions of life in the trenches. Even today, in France, it is known as the Great War. The trauma was so great and widespread it transformed an entire continent.

In times of horror, people cope however they can. In the trenches, some had found a particular way to get their minds away from what they were experiencing. They gathered empty bullet shells, obus casings, any scrap of metal they could find on the battlefield, and they made it all into pretty things. Some made planes from oblong brass bullets. Others worked obus casings into vases. Some others fashioned toys and engagement rings for children and fiancées they would perhaps never see again. Others, ever practical, used the tools they could find in the trenches to carve everyday objects: mugs, spoons, butter molds.

Some of this art has survived today, but not everybody knows its origin. Some people think that those objects were made after the war, when someone eventually thought of something to do with all that brass and steel lying around. Apparently, that’s not actually true for most, as I learned in a completely random way, when visiting a castle that had a temporary exhibit of trenches art. There were little model planes which still showed the shape of the bullet they had been made from, like tragedy resurfacing through temporary comfort…

… Vases of a strange, somewhat impractical shape, made from hammered obus cases…

… The rudimentary tools soldiers had at their disposal between battles…

… all gathered in a small stone room, as dour as French museums know how to be.

My grandfather was born during the Great War. He was part of that special generation we learned about in history classes, the generation that almost didn’t exist as fathers and husbands died by the score in pointless battles. His father fought in the war, and died shortly after of tuberculosis, only a few years before penicillin was discovered. Little is known about him.

But in the place where he lived, there were vases, tarnished brass with a strange, impractical shape:

… and it is a strange thing.

I don’t think I will ever know if my great-grandfather made those vases during his time in the war, or if some other poor countryman had fought away the boredom and dreariness of the trenches by fashioning them. I will never know how they felt, hammering away at the brass, turning deadly devices into pretty things–homely things, unsophisticated things, but they have leaves and flowers and living things encarved on them and it will never matter if art critics never thought them worthy of notice. Now those vases sit on the corners of our bookshelves. Whatever they hold, a brief moment of joy against the misery, the hope of a gift for a family back home, a deadly weapon against boredom and not against men, the survival of a man I’ve never met but whose genes I still carry, they are precious. They are a memory carved in brass, even if the key to decode that memory is lost forever.

And maybe one day, if everything is lost, we can still carve something out of the tools that destroyed us and let it live on, to whatever life will come next.

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