First World War training trenches in Britain are widespread, says university professor

By Culture24 Reporter | 02 July 2014

British trench training systems, mirroring those on the Western Front, are more widespread than we think, according to a Yorkshire professor

an aerial view of trench systems visible in a green landscape
World War One trench systems at Penally in Wales© Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales – photo reference number PE/14/055)
The physical scars left by the Western front in Belgium and France during the First World War continue to fascinate historians and tourists who flock to these former battlefields.

But according to a Professor of History at the University of Huddersfield, there are a surprising number of similarly preserved remnants of trenches still to be discovered in Britain.

Professor Richard Morris says it is even possible to find evidence of trench systems in remote areas of Britain that mirrored those of the Western Front.

“During the Great War, they built whole stretches of the front in England in order to train troops before they went overseas,” explained Professor Morris.

“Sometimes live ammunition was used, so that the troops knew what was in store for them."

Today these trench systems can be seen using aerial photography in different parts of the country - mainly on marginal land in areas that have escaped subsequent change.

In Hampshire,  a complete set of zig-zagging training trenches was discovered on Ministry of Defence land near Gosport in 2014. And in Northern Ireland, the former Ballykinler Training Centre yielded a full practice trench system and dugouts, as well as an old 600-metre gallery range.

As you might expect, Salisbury Plain still has plenty of evidence of training trenches, and sites as far afield as the Highlands, the Peak District and the Pennines show evidence of trench systems. Wherever troops were stationed there were usually training trenches dug into the ground.

There is also photographic and archaeological evidence of other transformations to the landscape during 1914-18, such as the temporary settlements that were constructed as reception centres or transit camps for hundreds of thousands of troops. 

The grounds of Belton House in Lincolnshire – close to the East Coast main line – were the site for an enormous city of huts, the size of which almost defies belief, according to Professor Morris, who has been using aerial photography as a research tool for investigating the distant and more recent past.

“You might take a picture of one thing, such as a Bronze Age hut circle, and end up with something else on your negative," he says, revealing its often-unexpected results.

The Council for British Archaeology is working with English Heritage and partners across the country to help local communities identify and map the remains of the First World War in Britain. Residents are being encouraged to help to document and preserve vulnerable remains for future generations.

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