Archaeology and Memory at Larkhill

Getting close to the experience of First World War battlefield training on Salisbury Plain.

Extensive remains of First World War military training have been investigated at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, during archaeological works undertaken by Wessex Archaeology in advance of development by Defence Infrastructure Organisation. The British Army’s Larkhill garrison has been earmarked for 400 new Army family homes as part of wider plans to base 4000 additional Service personnel and their families on and around Salisbury Plain from 2019. Excavations on one site for new housing, covering  23.14 hectares, has revealed around 8 kilometres of trenches, as well as tunnels, providing significant evidence for training activities. In addition, over 100 pieces of graffiti, mostly of soldiers’ names, were also recorded. The Larkhill excavation is the single largest archaeological investigation of a First World War training landscape to date.

Plan of training trenches.
Plan showing the extensive trenches and tunnels created in 1916 to train Australian troops for the Somme offensive. © Reproduced courtesy of Martin Brown/WYG

Recording the training landscape

Salisbury Plain had seen the expansion of military training, as well as new garrisons, from the end of the 19th century, but the First World War saw a massive expansion of operations and the construction of numerous temporary camps, including Larkhill. By the end of the conflict, training troops at Larkhill had created a representation of a First World War battlefield with two opposing lines of trenches facing each other across an area of no man’s land. Beneath the trenches and under no man’s land were over 280 metres of tunnels.

A First World War postcard of huts at Larkhill Camp.
First World War hutted camps at Larkhill. © Image reproduced courtesy of W D Cocroft.

The extent of the trenches required that the research project should have a robust sampling strategy.

 The extent of the trenches, with firing lines and communication trenches, saps and other positions, required that the research project should have a robust sampling strategy. Sample excavations to characterise a range of remains were undertaken. This allowed the majority of trenches to be rapidly addressed and recorded, with machine excavation under archaeological supervision, while more rigorous hand excavations investigated specific areas and aspects of the military features, notably particular or atypical features, or things not seen in the characterisation areas. Two double machine-gun positions were recorded, each with a raised platform in the corner to mount a Vickers machine gun, one based exactly on the wartime military manual, but the other showing adaptation, perhaps based on an instructor’s front-line experience.

An aerial photograph of an infilled practice trench system.
A drone photograph showing infilled trenches and square-island traverses. © Wessex Archaeology/WYG

Other features included possible trench mortar pits and supporting positions used for close defence of trenches by Lewis gunners or Bombers (men trained in use of grenades). Further defences included barbed-wire entanglements, indicated by ‘silent’ or screw pickets and numerous barbed- wire fragments. They show that, like the Western Front, the Larkhill no man’s land was heavily wired, preparing soldiers for the reality of the battlefield.

The presence of unexploded ordnance on the site, including within backfill materials, meant that all excavation and monitoring was undertaken in close co-operation with specialists, who screened all areas in advance of archaeological works. Significant numbers of grenades and both blank and live cartridge cases, further products of extensive and realistic training, were recovered.

Also discovered were dumped tins, including corned beef (the staple of British troops) and sardines, and Camp coffee and brown-sauce bottles.

 These are all similarly found in trenches on the Western Front and show that troops were spending days and nights in the Larkhill trenches, learning the routine necessary to garrison trenches on the battlefield. Smoking paraphernalia, sweet tins and a brazier made from a bucket all showed the methods employed by troops to ease hardship and discomfort.

Recording below-ground features

Subterranean remains were initially identified from an area of collapse, with the subsequent discovery of an entrance at the end of one of the saps. This led to an incline heading underground, replicating the wartime military manuals. While dugouts had been anticipated, the more complex tunnel systems were unexpected as mining was thought to have been specialist work, with training given elsewhere. The extent of the underground workings was unknown and had implications for construction, with the potential for voids and collapse, so it was essential to identify their depth and extent. At the same time, the remains presented previously unexpected opportunities for archaeological research. Flint bands in the chalk inhibited use of ground-penetrating radar, so other techniques were employed, including resistivity survey, stitch drilling from known points within identified tunnels and CCTV, used to identify the direction of travel.

Laser scanning was used extensively to record underground features, enabling both accurate recording and a virtual-reality walk-through of the tunnels

The unstable nature of the chalk and the possible presence of unexploded ordnance meant that physical access was not an option. However, the presence of the tunnels beneath the proposed development meant that they were to be removed as part of construction. As a result, laser scanning was used extensively to record underground features, enabling both accurate recording and a virtual-reality walk-through of the tunnels. The remains included tunnels connecting different trenches, as well as a network of galleries and listening posts connected to training in mine warfare, in which soldiers tried to identify enemy activity underground.

Graffiti was identified throughout the tunnels and included over a hundred names, often accompanied by the individuals’ Army unit or hometown. There were also messages, including one from the Halls brothers, who recorded themselves as ‘Semper Fidelis’ ('always loyal'). Fourteen Australian soldiers recorded their names and their specialist role as Bombers; one of their number, L.C. Weathers, won a Victoria Cross in September 1918 for attacking a German position with grenades, implementing his training from Larkhill. Each name provided an instant link to the individuals, but also helped give relative dates to tunnel lengths and to determine which units were using the trench system. The historical records for training are scant, so the ability to place men and units within the Larkhill trenches at particular periods increases understanding of the formation of the British Imperial forces during the First World War.

Assessing the significance of the landscape

While these training works fit within a recognised class of monument, their extent, the range of features identified and the evidence of change and adaptation through the war give them a particular significance.

The trenches belie the popular myth of ‘futility’, with untrained troops being despatched to certain death

 Those directing training had clearly sought a high level of authenticity at Larkhill, intended to prepare troops for the conditions at the Front. Artefacts showed that the Larkhill trenches were not simply an exercise in digging: food tins and ordnance demonstrate that these trenches were regularly inhabited, with active combat training taking place. As such, the trenches belie the popular myth of ‘futility’, with untrained troops being despatched to certain death. The authenticity of training also extended underground, where men learned not only how to dig, but also how to prosecute the ‘silent war’ of tunnels and mines. The Larkhill trenches provided an authentic training experience, and served to militarise the landscape as effectively as any trenches in France or Belgium.

 

The excavation of the trenches during the centenary of the First World War added poignancy to the fieldwork, for the field team, most of whom were of similar age to the soldiers themselves, for members of the local community and for the clients, with their military backgrounds and associations. On 1 July 2016, members of the garrison, project staff, and children from Larkhill School assembled on a stripped area of trenches to commemorate the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

This act of remembrance reinforced the meaning of the Larkhill trenches, something transcending their utilitarian origins. Interest in the excavation, from the service community, from those working on and interested in the First World War, and from anyone who may have had forebears training on the site, led to many site visits and international media reports.  Perhaps the artefacts and names reminded the public that the men who trained here ate toffees, felt the cold and liked a smoke, or it may be that the scale of training surprised them. For today’s soldiers, however, it was clear that there was a strong notion of kinship between the men of Larkhill then and now.

A group of modern British soldiers gathered by excavated remains of a First World War training area.
Remembrance ceremony, 1 July 2016, marking the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme. © Rosemary Meeke/Drumbeat

Acknowledgements

The Larkhill project was undertaken by Wessex Archaeology and managed by WYG for Defence Infrastructure Organisation, with Wiltshire Council Archaeology Service providing professional oversight. Bactec/Dynasafe provided UXO (unexploded ordnance) cover, and Gable FM, Cundall and Sirius provided underground recording.

About the Author

Martin Brown

Martin Brown FSA MCIfA

Wiltshire County Archaeology Service

Martin managed the works at Larkhill and Bulford Service Family Accommodation for WYG. He is now working for Wiltshire Council Archaeology Service. Martin is author of the Historic England thematic study on First World War Trenches in England and contributed to the Council for British Archaeology volume The Home Front in Britain (2015).

Further reading

Brown, M 2017 First World War Fieldworks in England. Historic England Research Report 61/2017

Brown, M and Thompson, S 2018 ‘”A Matter of Holes and Ditches”: the archaeology of Great War Training, Larkhill, Wiltshire’. The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 111, 6-20

‘Preparing for the Front’. Current Archaeology, 328, 44-49

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