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European Union WWI: Network of Tunnels/Miles of Trenches Found>Where Tommies Secretly Trained

WWI Trenches... at Stonehenge: ROBERT HARDMAN Visits the Extraordinary Network of Tunnels Where Tommies Secretly Trained for The Hell of the Somme

  • The Allied forces played a deadly game of cat and mouse during the First World War in subterranean trenches
  • Soldiers would plant tit for tat explosions listening in for enemy movement before detonating the charges
  • After the explosions soldiers would move back in and plant further charges to detonate when rescuers came
  • Underground trenches near Stonehenge reveal a practise ground akin to the trenches on the Western Front
The Guardian/Daily Mail UK, 6 August 2017.


For a century its secrets have lain undisturbed — along with large amounts of live ammunition and a surprisingly large stash of empty whisky bottles.
But in recent days they have been uncovered, from old tins of tobacco and boot polish to names etched into walls by men who wondered if they would ever see home again. Many did not.

This is also a reminder of savage games of subterranean cat and mouse in which the loser would be blown to pieces or buried alive. Such was life in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I. And it is astonishing to look inside these tunnels and read the names of their previous occupants scratched into the rock and chalk.




For a century its secrets have lain undisturbed — along with large amounts of live ammunition and a surprisingly large stash of empty whisky bottles. This is also a reminder of savage games of subterranean cat and mouse in which the loser would be blown to pieces or buried alive. Such was life in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I


For here, in crumbling shafts and murky passages, we find the handiwork of young men preparing for battle. And when they weren’t hacking through the chalk, they did what bored soldiers always do — enjoy a smoke, make a meal, etch their name on something.

But this network of pristine Great War trenches and tunnels is nowhere near the Somme. It is on a building site just off the A303 in Wiltshire — though not for long.

By this morning it will all have been filled in and buried for ever as work starts on 400 new homes. So I have come to take a first and final look at the chalk labyrinth where so many brave young men learned the battle skills which would, ultimately, win the war.

It is a misconception that troops from Britain and her Empire were simply handed a uniform and a rifle, shipped across the Channel and sent to die in the mud. It’s the old ‘lions led by donkeys’ narrative, perpetuated by lazy history teachers and Blackadder.




This network of pristine Great War trenches and tunnels is nowhere near the Somme. It is on a building site just off the A303 in Wiltshire — though not for long


It neglects facts which surprise most people. First, most men who went off to war — at least four in five — came home again. Second, many had a fair idea of what to expect in the trenches, thanks to intensive training at sites like this one at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain. None, however, has been found preserved as well as this.

Larkhill, in Wiltshire, has been a garrison town since late Victorian times and is about to get a lot bigger. When the MoD announced that Britain was closing its bases in Germany by 2020, it had to plan new homes for those troops and their families. So a 13-acre site outside Larkhill is being developed as part of the £1.1 billion Army Basing Programme.

But before the builders could move in, the site had to be inspected by archaeologists.

Given that this has been an Army training base since the Boer War, it was highly likely that there would be a few bits of military detritus that needed clearing up. Additionally, it sits on a famously historic — and prehistoric — patch of the English countryside.


Stonehenge is less than two miles away. Other ancient gems, including Avebury and Old Sarum, are near by. The whole patch is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
So there was a chance ancient fragments might be revealed, too.
Even so, the results were astonishing. ‘We had no idea we were going to find such a plethora of extraordinary archaeology,’ says Si Cleggett, of Wessex Archaeology.

After removing the topsoil, his team had soon unearthed Bronze Age burial sites and traces of Iron Age and Roman life. Even more significant were the remains of a Neolithic causeway, part of a giant enclosure built in 3700BC.




When the MoD announced that Britain was closing its bases in Germany by 2020, it had to plan new homes for those troops and their families. So a 13-acre site outside Larkhill is being developed as part of the £1.1 billion Army Basing Programme


Then the historical discoveries leapt forward to the early 20th century. There was plenty of junk, of course. The archaeologists uncovered one pit for a World War II anti-aircraft gun into which someone had dumped an old MG and a motorbike.

But just below the surface of what had been grazing land for as long as anyone could remember, the excavation team found a clearly defined line of zig-zagging trenches. Six feet deep, they were straight out of the World War I training manual.
Next, they uncovered an entrance to a tunnel.

‘We thought: “OK. This is all quite interesting”,’ recalls archaeologist Martin Brown. ‘But we were amazed by what came next.’




But before the builders could move in, the site had to be inspected by archaeologists. Stonehenge is less than two miles away. Other ancient gems, including Avebury and Old Sarum, are near by. The whole patch is a UNESCO World Heritage Site


Because the more earth they shifted, the more they found — five miles of trenches in all.

‘Suddenly, we realised they had recreated an entire length of the Western Front,’ says Martin. ‘Here were British lines, German lines and No Man’s Land in between — and exactly the same sort of tunnel networks as those being dug in France and Flanders.’


And the top brass were clearly in deadly earnest about this training, because the soldiers were using live ammunition.

Yet, come the end of ‘the war to end all wars’, the site had been abandoned. Some trenches had been used as a garrison rubbish dump — hence the hundreds of empty bottles of whisky, jam jars and tins. Then they were just backfilled and the grass grew again. Everyone forgot about the replica Somme on the edge of town.




‘Suddenly, we realised they had recreated an entire length of the Western Front,’ says Martin. ‘Here were British lines, German lines and No Man’s Land in between — and exactly the same sort of tunnel networks as those being dug in France and Flanders.’


A century later, the inspection of the site became a lengthy process. Every piece of soil had to be scanned for unexploded ordnance, and there was a lot of it.

More than 200 grenades, bombs and shells came to light, 100 of them still ‘live’. As a result, the bomb disposal teams have been extremely busy in recent months.

The MoD and the developers were in no hurry to publicise their discovery, for fear of souvenir-hunters. So once the archaeologists had recorded all their finds in a particular area, every noteworthy item was logged and bagged and the bulldozers were then ordered to cover it all up again.
I have come to see the last remains of the tunnel network before it is filled in for ever.





Yet, come the end of ‘the war to end all wars’, the site had been abandoned. Some trenches had been used as a garrison rubbish dump — hence the hundreds of empty bottles of whisky, jam jars and tins. Then they were just backfilled and the grass grew again. Everyone forgot about the replica Somme on the edge of town


One corner of a field remains fenced off, with good reason. There is a huge hole, 12ft deep, with archways leading off in different directions through the chalk. This is where an excavator has dug down and found a warren of interconnecting tunnels and shafts high and wide enough for a man to squeeze through bent double.

We scrabble down to peer inside. It’s too dangerous to start crawling off up blind passages which might cave in at any minute (some already have).

But I can poke my head in to find names and dates scratched on the walls. I spot one left by a chap called Sharpe, along with a faded date which ends in 1917. Much clearer is the name ‘Private A Fleming’ of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).


Engineering geologist Steve Dixon explains that these tunnels are at the farthest extremes of the trench networks. They are listening posts where a soldier might lie in silence for hours, monitoring enemy digging.
Steve points to a small hole at the far end where an engineer would pack a charge. When the tell-tale sounds of the approaching enemy could be heard close at hand, he would retreat to safety and detonate it.




Engineering geologist Steve Dixon explains that these tunnels are at the farthest extremes of the trench networks. They are listening posts where a soldier might lie in silence for hours, monitoring enemy digging. When the tell-tale sounds of the approaching enemy could be heard close at hand, he would retreat to safety and detonate explosives


The same soldier would then head back up another tunnel in the same network, listen for the rescue party coming to help the victims of his original explosion, and plant another charge to blow up the rescuers, too.

To a 21st-century civilian, these might sound like terror tactics. But, as the tunnels show, this was standard practice, as taught to British and Empire troops here on Salisbury Plain. They did it to us and we did it right back.

‘There has been this long-held belief that training was pretty limp-wristed and haphazard, yet we can now dispense with that idea,’ says Si Cleggett.

For proof of that, he cites one of the most significant discoveries, a tunnel wall on which someone has scribbled a list of Australian names.

One is ‘LC Weathers’. Lawrence Weathers was an undertaker from Adelaide. A New Zealand-born father of two, he had enlisted in early 1916 following the death of his brother at Gallipoli. He arrived in Britain, trained at Larkhill and, later that year, arrived at the Western Front soon after the first battle of the Somme.

Hospitalised many times, he was back with his unit two months before the end of the war, as the second Battle of the Somme unfolded. Near Peronne, he was ordered forwards with an advanced bombing party. Once again, his Larkhill training kicked in.

‘The attack having been held up by a strongly held enemy trench, Weathers went forward alone under heavy fire and attacked the enemy with bombs,’ his commanding officers wrote later.




The same soldier would then head back up another tunnel in the same network, listen for the rescue party coming to help the victims of his original explosion, and plant another charge to blow up the rescuers, too. To a 21st-century civilian, these might sound like terror tactics. But, as the tunnels show, this was standard practice, as taught to British and Empire troops here on Salisbury Plain. They did it to us and we did it right back


‘Then, returning to our lines for a further supply of bombs, he again went forward with three comrades and attacked under very heavy fire.

Regardless of personal danger, he mounted the enemy parapet and bombed the trench, and, with the support of his comrades, captured 180 prisoners and three machine guns.

‘His valour and determination resulted in the successful capture of the final objective.’

Promoted to temporary corporal a few days later, on his fifth wedding anniversary, Weathers fought on — but on 29 September he was mortally wounded by enemy artillery and, tragically, never learned that his heroics had earned him the Victoria Cross.

His valour made news all over again last year when his VC came up for sale at auction, fetching more than £300,000. The anonymous purchaser then donated the Weathers VC to the Australian War Memorial, where it will remain on display in perpetuity.

Corporal Weathers is buried in the Commonwealth cemetery at Vendhuile in northern France. His headstone is identical to hundreds scattered around Larkhill.




Some may wonder why we cannot preserve the Larkhill tunnels for posterity, but a lot of the site is unsafe. Besides, the Army urgently needs homes to be built. All the artefacts have been labelled and stored by Wessex Archaeology, pending transfer to local museums and schools. On one shelf sits a bag full of grenade pins, on another a collection of tin mugs


I visit the cemetery at Durrington. Here lie more than 200 soldiers who, like Weathers, came to learn their battlecraft on Salisbury Plain but never made it any farther. Some died in training accidents, others from illness. Like Weathers, many were Australian.

Every war grave is immaculate, but there is something particularly poignant about those of men who had travelled right round the world to fight for a ‘motherland’ they had never known, and who would never see home again.

There lies Private John Jenkins of the Australian 26th Battalion, who was only 18 when he died here in February 1917. ‘A Loving And Only Son Called Home,’ reads the inscription on his headstone.

Near by lies Private Arthur Brown, of the Australian 9th, who died in the same month, aged 25: ‘Oh Could We Have Had One Look At His Dear Face,’ reads his headstone. ‘Thy Will Be Done.’

Some may wonder why we cannot preserve the Larkhill tunnels for posterity, but a lot of the site is unsafe. Besides, the Army urgently needs homes to be built.

All the artefacts — more than a ton of them — have been labelled and stored by Wessex Archaeology, pending transfer to local museums and schools. On one shelf sits a bag full of grenade pins, on another a collection of tin mugs.

Here, too, in an airtight container, is a slab of chalk from a tunnel. It is that piece etched with the names of those bored Australian recruits. And there, in pencil, we see the name: ‘LC Weathers.’

It is, surely, a slice of history as important as any Neolithic causeway or Bronze Age arrowhead.
END



MORE:

Miles of Forgotten First World War Trenches Unearthed in England

Vast extent of the fortifications surprises archaeologists who used new technology and the knowledge of local historians.



The full extent of the networks of trenches and defensive fortifications built in England during the first world war has been revealed in the first major survey of its kind.

Detailing how resources were concentrated along England’s eastern and southern coasts – where the main thrust by an invading German army was expected to come – the study draws on existing periodicals and local history as well as LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) data gleaned from the use of lasers by the Environment Agency to plot the bumps and dips of British topography.

“We are all very aware of the defence of Britain in the second world war, but people don’t tend to think that the same threat was there during the first world war,” said Martin Brown, an archaeologist who led the research for government body Historic England.

“Every now and again you will find zigzags and deeps and hollows running across fields, for example,” added Brown, who is principal archaeologist at WYG, an environmental planning consultancy.

“There are parts of the country where you find them by falling down them, because they may be buried under some scrub, and you would not make much of them if you didn’t realise what they were.

“In places like Kent and elsewhere, they have been erased not just physically from the terrain but also, in a way, from the memory.”

In addition to established gun batteries around the coast, the survey counts 26 defended ports and naval bases with permanent fortifications, such as Newhaven Fort in East Sussex, Fort Paull in East Yorkshire and Shoeburyness in Essex. The strategic importance of the Humber estuary, with its proximity to the North Sea and potential vulnerability, as demonstrated by the German naval raids on the north-east coast in 1914, was recognised by the construction of batteries at Spurn and Kilnsea in East Yorkshire.

Supporting ports and bases, other parts of the home defence network included trenches identified north of Browndown camp, a Hampshire coastal fort. As the study notes – referring to its continuing use by the army for amphibious assault training – the beach there is “gently shelving shingle and perfect for landings, as demonstrated by continued 21st century exercises”.

Defences from the 1914-18 war at that spot were reused in the 1940s, as was Little London in Norfolk, where a pillbox and entrenchments form part of a stop line.

Other first world war lines included the Maidstone-Swale line in Kent and the London defence ring across Essex, Kent and Surrey.

More extensive trench networks in Kent joined existing defences around Chatham and connected them to so-called mobilisation centres along a line from Halling to Knockholt. These centres formed the basis of the London defence scheme, which had its origins in the 19th century. The strategy depended on a chain of 13 fortified centres acting as strong points on the North Downs, between Farningham in Kent and Guildford in Surrey, and from Epping to Basildon in Essex.

The major revelation from the survey has been the sheer extent of the network, according to Brown, who said that new finds had been discovered on sites suck as Cannock Chase in the West Midlands and Larkhill in Wiltshire.

The existence of an anti-invasion network on this scale is unlikely to have surprised many Britons in the years leading up to the first world war, however. An entire genre of fiction – sometimes referred to as “invasion literature” – was already being compiled. The earliest example is The Battle of Dorking, a fictional account of a Germanic (albeit Prussian) invasion of Britain, but later examples include Erskine Childers’s 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in 1915 but written just prior to the outbreak of the war.

“The threat in the second world war was much more significant and plausible because the European toe-hold was lost, for example, and there was a lot more building in the face of an imminent threat, which obscures what happened in 1914,” Brown said.

“But we can fail to appreciate the threat as people in 1914 saw it. There’s a sort of comedy element today when we might think of Zeppelin raids for example, but my grandmother and great-grandmother were in Hull when it was bombed and they were genuinely terrified.”

The study, First World War Fieldworks in England, forms part of Historic England’s contribution to the national Centenary Partnership programme about the conflict. It is being published this weekend to promote protection through discovery and the identification of the most significant remains, as well as helping towards local listing and the protection of previously unrecognised remains.

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