Monday, December 22, 2014

Long-forgotten trenches found

GOSPORT, England—Two lines of trenches face off across No Man’s Land.
A soldier marches, rifle in hand, along a ditch.

These are instantly familiar images of World War I . But this is Britain—a century on and an English Channel away from the battlefields of the Western Front.
This overgrown and oddly-corrugated patch of heathland on England’s south coast was once a practice battlefield, complete with trenches, weapons, and barbed wire.
Thousands of troops trained here to take on the German army.
After the 1918 victory, which cost one million Britons their lives, the site was forgotten—until it recently was rediscovered by a local official with an interest in military history.
Now the trenches are being used to reveal how the Great War transformed Britain—physically as well as socially.
As living memories of the conflict fade, historians hope these physical traces can help preserve the story of the war for future generations.
“We’ve now lost our First World War veterans. You’re not going to get a first-hand account,” said Richard Osgood, an archaeologist with the Ministry of Defence, which owns the land.
“In many ways, the truest witness is the archaeology and the legacy left behind.”
The trenches, near the town of Gosport, about 130 km south of London, were rediscovered a few months ago by Robert Harper, head of conservation at the local council.
A military history buff, he noticed some crenellated lines on a 1950s aerial photograph of the area, and was startled to recognize the pattern of “the classic British trench system.”
He was even more surprised when he had a look at the land—a local picnic spot—and found the contours of the trenches still clearly visible under a thick covering of bracken, gorse, and grass.
He could make out a front-line trench and several reserve rows, along with communications trenches and forward observation posts. And then there was an opposing set 300 metres away.
“It was one of those jaw-dropping moments,” Harper said.
“I’ve got five relatives buried on the Western Front,” he added.
“I think to myself, ‘Did any of them train here?’”
Several other sets of practice trenches have been found in Britain, but this is easily the most extensive.
Conservation body English Heritage, which announced the find today, said the task of mapping and documenting the site has just begun.
There were no immediate plans to turn it into a tourist site or build a museum around it.
The discovery already is providing ammunition for those who reject the “lions led by donkeys” view of the war, which argues that incompetent officers led ill-prepared troops into needless slaughter.
Historian Dan Snow said the elaborate mock battlefield “shows how seriously they took the business of training.”
“They had to send the guys out to France to do the hardest of tasks, something no one had done before, and that is defeat the German army when they were dug in,” Snow said.
“How to break that deadlock? Well, the answer is right here in front of us.
“Massive, massive preparation.”
The find is being used to launch a campaign, “Home Front Legacy,” which aims to record as many physical traces of the war as possible.
Even though the four-year conflict largely was fought outside Britain, the war transformed the country’s landscape in ways that often have been forgotten.
It’s hoped amateur historians will comb family archives, local newspapers, and other sources for evidence of everything from military bases and prisoner-of-war camps to munitions factories, pillboxes, and listening posts.
“We’re going to crowd-source this project,” Snow noted.
“We’re going to build a picture across the U.K. of the physical remnants of the First World War.”

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