A forgotten First World War practice battlefield at Larkhill
One hundred years ago, men from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Britain were being trained in trench warfare on an intricate practice battlefield established on a gently sloping hillside at Larkhill. Si Cleggett and Martin Brown told Matthew Symonds what excavations have revealed about how these soldiers prepared for combat, both above and below ground.
An Australian soldier writing home during World War I vividly captured the reality of life in the trenches. His description of star shells bursting over the line by night, the numbing cold, and a hungry comrade stooping to scoop a soggy biscuit from the base of a trench could easily pass as testimony to the danger and deprivation endured on the Western Front. But the soldier was not sending back news from France or Belgium. He was describing training at Larkhill, Wiltshire.
Work undertaken by WYG and Wessex Archaeology at Larkhill recently revealed the remarkable remains of a practice battlefield where such brutally immersive exercises were conducted. The excavations are part of a project to provide housing for service personnel returning from Germany in 2019. CA has already covered the momentous discovery of an early Neolithic causewayed enclosure at the site (see CA 326), and it is an illustration of how much archaeology can reveal about comparatively recent events that the scale and preservation of the practice battlefield was just as surprising as those Neolithic finds. In total, over 8km of training trenches were investigated, making this the largest ever archaeological exploration of such features. The results bring home what raw recruits being readied for industrialised warfare experienced.
The surviving relics of the World War I training regime ably testify to the hardships it imposed. Discarded tins of sardines, bully beef, and golden syrup show that soldiers were eating the same rations they could expect on the frontline, instead of the fresh meals more often associated with life in camp. Such food also suggests that the soldiers were out in the training trenches for days at a time, rather than using them for exercises that only lasted a few hours. Ammunition, both live and blank, would have recreated the ear-splitting cacophony of modern combat, while dummy and live grenades built familiarity with another deadly staple of trench warfare. A contrast to the anonymous vestiges of life usually revealed by archaeology is provided by graffiti left by the soldiers. Many of the names written on the chalk were accompanied by dates in the winter of 1916/17, lending extra poignancy to their chance discovery in the winter of 2016/17.
Voices from the past
‘This site has had a massive effect on our archaeologists, because an awful lot of the people excavating the trenches are of the same age as the guys who wrote the graffiti,’ says Si Cleggett, Project Manager for Wessex Archaeology. ‘It’s mostly written on the chalk in pencil and it is as clear as if it was written yesterday. Absolutely perfectly preserved. On a couple of occasions we could see from the dates that the archaeologists had found the graffiti a week or so before the exact centenary of when it was originally written. Once you have the soldiers’ names, you can find their service records and follow them from the moment they signed on the dotted line in Australia, Canada, or New Zealand, through to the moment when they signed the chalk at Larkhill. You almost feel as though you get to know these people, but 40-50% of them went on to die on the Western Front. There have been some profoundly emotional moments over the course of this excavation.’
‘We have about 100 names from the graffiti, and perhaps the most remarkable individual is Private Lawrence Carthage Weathers. He was born in New Zealand to Australian parents, who moved back to Australia with him, and is named alongside a dozen other men referred to as ‘bombers’, a term frequently used to describe use of hand grenades. Weathers went on to win the Victoria Cross in France, when he led a small group of guys against heavily defended German trenches. Under withering fire, Weathers rushed the trench and used his grenades. After these ran out, he returned to his line to get more grenades, and did it all again. Standing on the edge of the enemy parapet he captured 180 prisoners and three machine-guns. He died less than a month later, not knowing that he’d been awarded the Victoria Cross. The training with grenades that Weathers got at Larkhill would have helped him develop those skills, although of course no amount of training can give you that kind of courage. These graffiti really are voices from the past, and we want to make them as loud as possible.’
In order to minimise the blast and shrapnel damage from grenades and shells, World War I trenches were laid out in a crenellated pattern, which resembles castle battlements when seen from above. To the rear lay a bewildering network of communications and support trenches. The Larkhill training trenches are a textbook example of the type, and were sunk about 2m deep into the chalk, with a firing step cut into the side. A surviving sketch plan from an artillery training map shows the ‘allied’ trenches near the top of the hill in blue, while those downslope are marked in red and annotated with names like ‘Willie’s Way’ and ‘Hindenberg Trench’. It is an arrangement that inverts the situation on the Western Front, where the Germans frequently held the better ground.
The exposure to the elements that soldiers experienced at Larkhill was, though, all too representative of the conditions on the frontline. One approach to taking the edge off the unrelenting cold that the infamously harsh winter of 1916/17 inflicted was found by the Wessex Archaeology team. An entrenching tool had been used to hack holes into a metal bucket, transforming it into a makeshift brazier. The quantity of whisky bottles found during the excavations may also reflect attempts by the soldiers to fortify themselves against the icy conditions, although it is perhaps more likely that these were dumped in the trenches when they were no longer needed after the war. What is certain is that, despite the ingenuity invested in trying to ward off the cold, the weather proved to be far more deadly than bombs and bullets at Larkhill.
‘There were some training accidents,’ says Si. ‘One was when a grenade went off in someone’s pocket. On another occasion, there was a fatality after they made the mistake of firing a mixture of blank and live rounds from a machinegun. But of the 141 Australians who died during training at Larkhill (they are buried and commemorated in the nearby Durrington cemetery), the majority – about 80% to 85% – were killed by bronchial pneumonia. These lads would have got off the boat from Australia, then they’re brought here in the middle of winter and put into the trenches before they’ve fully acclimatised. These are young, fit lads of 18-20 years old, but they’re thrown into harsh environmental conditions and it takes a real toll.’
Attempts to break the military stalemate on the Western Front led to a new front being opened: the claustrophobic world of subterranean warfare. Tunnels were dug leading deep under No Man’s Land, often so that the ground under enemy positions could be packed with explosives and then blown at the beginning of an assault. Here, too, the Larkhill battlefield was true to its Continental counterparts and a complex series of tunnels had been cut into the chalk bedrock, leading out from both the ‘blue’ and ‘red’ trenches. Just as in France, the two sets of tunnellers engaged in a cat-andmouse duel to detect their opponents and stop them in their tracks.
‘The tunnels were a real surprise,’ says Martin Brown, Principal Archaeologist at WYG. ‘Initially we thought they might be dugouts, but instead a whole world of training in underground warfare opened up. The individual tunnels are not as deep as the ones in France, but some of them have very long galleries that cross No Man’s Land; I suspect that’s what was being taught – digging to position and listening for the enemy tunnelling towards you. Anyone can make a hole going down: it’s digging in the right direction and detecting enemy countermining that are the real skills. The soldiers were working in candlelight, and you can still see the soot in places. One piece of graffiti names a Royal Engineer from Selby in West Yorkshire; he was probably a pre-war coal miner, and that kind of expertise was valuable. The same is true for men of the Wiltshire Regiment’s Pioneer Battalion who recorded their names: some of them are likely to have been very familiar with the chalk. ’
‘When you picture what they were up to, you should imagine a main tunnel, with galleries running transversely off it. Projecting from them were a series of separate little adits cut out with picks. In one of these excavations you can see where the soldier has made a little ledge to lean on with some spoil and a shovel, just to make life a little more comfortable. The idea is that you’d have someone in each of these alcoves, listening with a device not that dissimilar to a doctor’s stethoscope. They were listening for the chink, chink of the other side picking away at the chalk. Now, because you’ve got a series of these listening posts, it was possible to triangulate more or less exactly where the enemy is. We can see the miners practising the next stage at Larkhill, too, which is to throw out your sap a little further towards the enemy tunnel. At the end of that elongated adit is what looks like a little rabbit hole. That’s where they’ve used an auger to insert a charge, so that they could blow out the other side’s tunnel.’
Although the hole for the charge was never blown at Larkhill, honing these skills could have been the difference between life and death on the Western Front, where blown tunnels became tombs for the soldiers digging them. Just like a tomb, once the archaeologists opened the tunnels, it changed the conditions within them. ‘We have recorded them remotely’, explains Si, ‘because there is no way you could let someone enter them. You have to remember that they were closed environments for 100 years, so the air pressure, temperature, and moisture levels were stable. Now all of that has changed, and the deterioration of the chalk has accelerated. The graffiti has all been recorded, and now the tunnels are going to be filled in before work on building the houses starts. About a third of the battlefield lies outside the area being developed, and we hope that will become a memorial.’
Filling the tunnels will prevent them from collapsing, something that clearly happened from time to time in the past. ‘In one area, the most elaborate graffiti was added by National Servicemen in the 1950s,’ points out Martin. ‘We think they must have done it after part of the tunnel fell in and it was a jolly jape to explore. Something else we found was a load of mustard seeds. Initially I got quite excited, because there’s anecdotal evidence that the Army considered using mustard and cress as camouflage for mining spoil in the First World War. A major problem when mining in chalk is that you had to dispose of the brilliant white spoil because large areas of white could alert enemy reconnaissance aircraft that tunnelling was under way. So someone thought, “Well, if we put mustard and cress on the spoil, it’ll camouflage overnight!” It would have been lovely if our mustard seeds proved that it was tried, but sadly it was an area with collapse and 1950s NAAFI pottery, so it’s probably just where a farmer shed a bit of his load in the 1950s when the ground gave way.’
‘It’s not that long ago that I had to justify why we did World War I archaeology at the beginning of presentations, just like medieval archaeologists had to back in the 1970s. Places like Larkhill show that just because we’re studying an era where there was lots of paperwork doesn’t mean we already know everything. If there ever were training records covering what happened here they were most likely thrown out at the end of the war, but just because we don’t have the records, it doesn’t mean that there was no training. I’ve been saying for years that the archaeology shows that people were being sent out prepared, contrary to some of the popular perceptions of the First World War. We should remember that the British Army that won the war in 1918 was one largely made up of conscripts and Kitchener’s volunteers. These were ordinary people, civilians; they weren’t professional soldiers, and they could never have achieved what they did without proper training.’
This feature was published in CA 328.