Training on Cannock Chase, Past and Present
Working with the local community to record First World War training landscapes.
The woodland and heath of Cannock Chase is now a quiet haven for wildlife and walkers, but it was not always so. From 1914 to 1918, volunteers and conscripts from across the British Empire travelled there to receive military instruction to prepare them for active service. Cannock Chase became home to two of the largest training camps in the country: Brocton and Rugeley. A century later, Historic England worked with people from the local community to discover more about the Chase by examining the well-preserved archaeological earthworks there.
Engaging with the Chase
From 2016 to 2018, Historic England was a partner in The Chase Through Time project, an initiative led by Staffordshire County Council with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The project was devised to assess the rich history of Cannock Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and to explore ways of getting local communities and visitors more involved in its heritage. All periods of past activity were investigated, from prehistory onwards, but the main reason for the project was the First World War centenary. Previous investigations suggested that the Chase contained one of the best-preserved First World War training landscapes in England, yet there had been no overall assessment of the remains.
High-resolution airborne laser scanning (lidar) allowed us to see beneath dense areas of vegetation
Historic England contributed to the project in two key ways: mapping from aerial sources and promoting volunteer engagement on the ground. Historic England staff used historic aerial photographs, which captured the changing landscape over time, and newly commissioned high-resolution airborne laser scanning (lidar), which allowed us to see beneath dense areas of vegetation. We mapped and interpreted all archaeological features, visible as structures or earthworks and buried remains seen as cropmarks or soilmarks.
Field training days for local people provided hands-on instruction in a range of recording techniques.
Equally important was the involvement of local people. Classroom workshops demonstrated how to get the best out of aerial resources, and field training days provided hands-on instruction in a range of non-intrusive analytical recording techniques, including walkover survey, earthwork survey and geophysical survey.
A rewarding and mutually beneficial relationship was fostered between both parties: Historic England shared skills and provided archaeological expertise, while volunteers reciprocated with detailed knowledge about the history and geography of their local landscape.
Exploring the military training areas
Rugeley Camp was established within weeks of the outbreak of war in 1914, followed by a sister camp at Brocton. Upon completion, they covered vast areas of the heath and hosted thousands of soldiers training for combat.
The camps became self-contained towns, with their own railway lines, depots, shops, hospital and even a theatre.
Part of Brocton camp was later used to house prisoners of war. The layout and form of the camps are well documented on maps and postcards from the time, and in many areas the extensive foundations of individual buildings can still be clearly identified on the ground.
But what lay beyond the limits of the hutted settlements? Aerial and ground evidence shows that large areas of the heath were used as firing ranges, assault courses and practice trench systems. Prior to this project, the complex training infrastructure that surrounded the camps was largely unknown.
The ground immediately adjacent to the accommodation huts became the focus for some of the most intense training. Using lidar data, we were able to identify and map a large number of assault courses. These comprise a series of short parallel linear trenches, effectively representing the different lines of trenches on a real battlefield. Contemporary accounts suggest that barbed wire was interspersed between the trenches and mock shell-holes were dug. Gantries were also erected to hang straw-filled sack dummies used to train the soldiers in bayonet practice.
Some of the practice earthworks were more elaborate than others and some match examples found in instruction manuals of the period. One example is the ‘nursery labyrinth’, a close-knit array of traversed trenches dug at right angles at set distances to minimise the effect of flying shrapnel from a shell or grenade blast, with up-cast parapets and parados (a rear parapet).
Other forms of trench were identified, including a ‘low command redoubt’, a stronghold that was a common feature on the Western Front. Additional earthworks were probably constructed for specialist training units such as sappers, engineers, machine-gun squads or artillery.
The training facilities incorporated a detailed miniature model of the Messines landscape and battle-lines recreated in concrete.
The model was constructed by members of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, using German prisoners of war as labour. It was given scheduled status in 2017.
A large number of firing ranges were established on the Chase. These include 600-yard ‘full-calibre’ ranges, where soldiers would carry out advance and firing exercises, and 30-yard ranges for small-calibre firearms and less experienced marksmen. Some of our most useful insights into the ranges came from a walkover exercise with the volunteers. By exploring the remains on the ground, the group was able to better understand how the surviving features could have functioned, and ideas distilled from these onsite discussions fed directly into the interpretation and record.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery was an extensive and elaborate mock battlefield located in the Sherbrook Valley, equidistant between the two camps.
The ‘battlefield’ comprised nearly 43 hectares of practice trenches arranged as two opposing fronts on either side of a dry valley.
Each front consisted of a traversed fire trench (front line) with support and reserve trenches.
The reserve trenches were located on the counter slopes of the naturally undulating ground, preventing them from being viewed from the opposing positions. Perpendicular to these, a series of sinuous communication trenches allowed soldiers to move from the reserve lines up to the front with relative ease whilst still under cover, and observation or listening posts extended beyond the front lines into ‘no man’s land’
With our assistance, volunteers investigated part of this battlefield complex. They spent time looking carefully at the features and used simple hand-survey techniques to create an accurate measured plan.
It was discovered that an L-shaped stretch of traversed trenches were around one-third scale, and nearby circular pits within raised rings of spoil were artificial shell holes that had been hand-dug to simulate battlefield conditions during training manoeuvres. The no man’s land between the trench systems was similarly peppered with these mock shell holes.
The archaeological evidence shows that the ‘battlefield’ was perhaps constructed in preparation for the Battle of the Somme.
The archaeological evidence shows that the ‘battlefield’ was constructed as a near textbook example, perhaps in preparation for the Battle of the Somme. It displays all the elements that would be expected to be found in the real theatre of war, down to details such as dugouts for latrines. The trenches appear to have been largely backfilled, presumably at the end of the war, but the degree of disturbance and the size of the now largely levelled parapets, suggests that at least some of them were constructed at full scale and depth.
There is only scant documentary evidence for this mock battlefield. William Elmhirst, an officer in the 9th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment, wrote in February 1916 that the ‘trenches we propose spending 48 hours in, aren’t half finished yet, no dugouts of any sort’ (Elmhirst 2011, 110). In November of the following year, Alick Trafford, who served with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, made sketches and descriptions of an area of the training ground used to practice a trench-to-trench attack (National Library of Zealand, item 2003-171-17/1).
The project's legacy
The project has enriched our understanding of the archaeology of Cannock Chase, recording its physical elements and helping to secure its future. Previously, the overall form, extent and survival of the extensive field training areas and camps had not been fully appreciated. The variety of dug features is much greater and more nuanced than previously known.
The surviving earthworks are a testament to the reality of the war and the intensive training required.
Comparing the physical remains of the trenches and huts to information in 100-year-old postcards, drawings and diaries brings the history of the Chase to life and allows us to make personal connections to the soldiers stationed there.
The results of the aerial investigation were input directly to the Staffordshire Historic Environment Record and are being used for planning and management. Analysis of the results of the Historic England contribution to The Chase Through Time project are published in a detailed research report (Carpenter et al, 2018).
The lidar data and an archaeological map based on aerial sources are available online via an interactive map hosted and maintained by Historic England. These resources, alongside the legacy of shared field skills, will inspire and enable the volunteers and others to continue with investigation and research into the fascinating story of Cannock Chase.
The authors would like to express their gratitude to all those who contributed to the Chase Through Time project and, perhaps most importantly, to the project volunteers: our deepest thanks to all of them for their able assistance and infectious enthusiasm!
Aerial Investigator with Historic England
Dave has been mapping from aerial photographs and lidar for large landscape projects for over 11 years and specialises in the use of digital elevation models, military archaeology, and upland and coastal regions of northern England and the midlands.
Archaeological Investigator with Historic England
Rebecca worked as an archaeologist in the commercial sector and on academic landscape research projects for six years, before joining English Heritage in 2010. At Historic England she is responsible for undertaking a wide range of applied research projects and analytical survey tasks, such as working closely with the project volunteers carrying out ground investigation on Cannock Chase.
Carpenter, E, Knight, D, Pullen, R and Small, F 2018 Cannock Chase, Staffordshire: The Chase Through Time, Historic England Contribution. Historic England Research Report Series 7-2018
Elmhirst, P B 2011 The Family Budget 1914-1919. York: The Elmyrste Press
To help facilitate continued engagement with the newly mapped archaeology of Cannock Chase, Historic England have developed an online ArcGIS portal providing public access to The Chase Through Time aerial mapping results and lidar
Also of interest...
Cannock Chase has one of the best-preserved WWI landscapes in England, largely hidden in woodland. Lidar is helping us to assess these remains
Historic England experts use airborne remote sensing methods to identify, record and monitor the condition of heritage assets
Historic England investigates fieldworks including defensive and practice trenches.