Archaeologists find bullets and shells at "enigma" Western Front practice trenches used by World War I soldiers in Cumbria

By Ben Miller | 27 November 2014

"Enigma" of practice trenches used soldiers sent to Western Front unearthed by archaeologists in Cumbria

A black and white photo of an early 20th century bullet
One of a small assemblage of .303 shell cases, manufactured in America, found at a former wartime training trench in Cumbria© George Nash, University of Bristol
Working across a landscape which unearthed .303 bulletheads and shellcases believed to have been produced in America at the start of the conflict, archaeologists say they have traced the trenches used by soldiers to practice battlefield tactics for the Western Front during the earliest stages of the First World War.

Walney Island, on the west coast of Cumbria near the naval shipyards of Barrow-in-Furness, has revealed rifle butts and ranges from its time as a trench system, as well as its later service as a World War II moving target range and the home of the gunnery school and airfield of RAF Walney.

A photo of a large archaeological trench under grassland revealing brown mud
This trench section shows the line of the original practice trench © George Nash, University of Bristol
Two trenches, each of six square metres, were excavated following a walkover survey by Dr George Nash and Thomas Wellicome, a pair of experienced archaeologists who trained volunteers during their investigation of the crenulated earthwork trenches.

The timber and metal shoring which once propped up the system have long since disappeared. But the team struck lucky with a British coin – possibly lost from the pocket of a soldier in 1840 – and a chance meeting with local resident Andrew Bolton, who offered photographs of his grandfather, Private Hugh Thomas of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, who was one of the men in action at the practice trenches between July 1916 and 1917. Private Thomas fought at Passchendaele and the 3rd Battle of Ypres later that year.

“In many ways the military history of Walney Island is still very much an enigma,” admits Dr Nash, who plans to produce a mobile app, Art Gene, to help visitors and locals discover more about a system now set within a National Nature Reserve.

“Researchers are faced with limited documentary evidence, Ordnance Survey map embargoes between 1916 and 1985 and little in the way of surviving above-ground archaeology.

“This is probably the closest we can get to the horrors of early modern warfare.

“Based on the limited finds and artefacts shown to the team, the practice trenches on North Walney were a busy place with conscripts and professional soldiers learning how to use shallow trenching, especially prior to 1916, when battle field tactics began to change forever with trench warfare becoming a three-year stalemate along the Western Front.”

Dr Nash says the team were encouraged by positive comments from the public during their dig, adding that the app designers are “indebted” to Cumbria’s Archaeology Service.

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A photo of a man digging in a deep brown archaeological pit beneath grassland
Volunteers helped excavate the sections© George Nash, University of Bristol
A photo of two women carrying spades smiling at a greenfield archaeological trench
© George Nash, University of Bristol
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