Digging In: A World Cut into the World

The Mule Track by Paul Nash, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1153)

The Mule Track by Paul Nash, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1153)

Our understanding of the Great War is profoundly influenced by images of muddy trenches snaking across France and Flanders, the space between friend and foe a no-man’s land of water-filled shell holes and rolls of barbed wire. Of course, there were many other theatres of war in those dark years from 1914-1918, but it is trench warfare that seems to epitomise the ‘war to end all wars’.

Even during the conflict, those at home were fascinated by the alien world in which their loved ones were living and fighting. Replica trenches on the Home Front became visitor attractions and the fighting had barely ceased before battlefield tourism commenced, both for bereaved pilgrims and for the curious.

DIGGING IN continued this century-old fascination with the field fortifications of the Great War by recreating a section of Allied and opposing German trenches in Pollok Park, Glasgow from 2015-19. It brought together a diverse range of specialists and interest groups – archaeologists, historians, teachers, engineers, re-enactors and university Officer Training Corps units – to explore the semi-subterranean world of trench warfare.

The reconstructions drew on a variety of sources, including archaeological excavations carried out in France and Belgium by the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow. In the reconstructed trenches, visitors were able to gain some small insight into the earth-walled world that was both home and hell on earth to millions of men and boys from so many different nations and backgrounds.

The aim of DIGGING IN was not to replicate the experiences of those who fought on the Western Front. That would be impossible, and indeed disrespectful; we can only imagine what those soldiers endured. Instead, it created an environment in which the myths and realities of trench warfare could be explored and interrogated. Through active participation, visitors could better understand how soldiers learned to survive not just the violence of war but also the mundane challenges of daily life, thrown up by a world cut into the world.