Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Digging the Great War

Having been an enthusiast for archaeology for most of my life and having many happy memories of excavations on Roman and other sites in the UK, I find the reports of Martin Brown’s “Plugstreet project” very interesting. I thought that others might like to have a look at the embryonic website: which includes a blog (not very up-to-date, but I can understand that, if anyone can) and photographs of some of the artefacts discovered during the excavations that took place in July this year – a time when I was very preoccupied with planning our centenary programme.

I haven’t done any digging for a couple of years now, mainly for lack of time.  It’s a sad fact that many of us have to reach retirement age before we get the opportunity to take up hobbies in earnest, which sometimes means we are slowing down physically and unable to put as much “welly” into it as we once could have.  Fortunately there are still a lot of archaeology students around, and how I envy them!  It’s a terrific pastime, simultaneously relaxing, exciting and fulfilling.  Although, as far as I’m aware, Siegfried Sassoon never did any excavating, he certainly had an interest in the subject.  You only have to read “On Scratchbury Camp” to realise that.

“I walk the fosse, once manned by bronze and flint-head spear;”

Don’t tell me he didn’t know his prehistory!  Indeed, there is more direct evidence of an interest in archaeology, since he donated prehistoric artefacts found on his estate to a local museum.  During the Second World War he commented, in a letter to Edmund Blunden, "I sometimes feel that I am living in a world that is as unreal to me as the Bronze Age", unwittingly revealing himself to have more of an interest in ancient history than he would have others believe.  It was the recent past he had a problem with.

What would Siegfried have thought of people a hundred years on, digging up the remains of his First World War experience?  I doubt that he would have approved.  In his mind, the past was buried and ought to stay that way.  He may have imagined that future generations would not want to understand the past in this hands-on manner.  After all, didn’t his poetry say it all?  It certainly did, for anyone who was actually involved in the war.  Yet those he took to task for not understanding are the same ones who can benefit from the exercise of excavating First World War battlefields and trenches.

If you saw my recent article on the WFA website (, about the July “Poets’ Tour” to Ypres, you may remember me mentioning the small museum at Pond Farm, where Stijn Butaye and his family have lovingly collected and researched a miscellany of artefacts, mostly everyday objects, found in the local fields.  The Plugstreet excavation, and its sister project the “Plugstreet Experience”, which opened in November 2013, give us the opportunity to get further acquainted with the day-to-day life of soldiers in the trenches.

The same team has been excavating in the UK, working with Staffordshire County Council on the site of the Messines Model on Cannock Chase.  Apparently, scale models of sectors of the Western Front were used in training and preparation for the Battles of Messines and Cambrai.   What can we learn from this?  Well, the mere fact that such models existed is not common knowledge, despite photographic evidence.  Getting close to the troops obviously takes more than familiarity with their everyday lives.  But it's a start, isn't it?

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