Archaeology of the Western Front

Comb, cut down to make a moustache comb.

Even before the centenary of the Great War, archaeologists were investigating the trenches, dugouts and other features that accumulated on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. Of course, the conflict is well documented through photographs, maps, letters, eyewitness accounts and military records, not to mention the thousands of history books written since. But archaeology can provide fresh perspective on aspects of the war that people overlooked or got wrong, particularly in the chaos of battle. It can cast light on things that have fallen through the cracks of history – quite literally at times. There is, for instance, the small pink pebble, carved into a love-heart, which a soldier at Mametz in 1916 dropped between the slats of the duckboard beneath his feet, where it remained for 90 years.

We will never know who made that love-heart or who dropped it and in what circumstances. But the object itself gives us a moving insight into what soldiers thought about and how they spent their time when they were not fighting – which was a lot of the time. God, as they say, is in the detail, and archaeology can reveal so many of the hidden details of life and death on the Western Front: how trenches were maintained and repaired, how their design diverged greatly from the drawings in official manuals, how equipment designed for one use was modified for another. It can fill the gaps in our knowledge about secret weapons or even events, such as the fight in the wood on the hilltop of Mont St Quentin of which we have no accounts or photographs. At its most humanitarian, archaeological investigation can involve the recovery of the remains of the dead and provide men lost for a century a decent burial.

In 2009, Harry Patch, the last man alive to have fought on the Western Front, died at the age of 111. With his passing we lost the last living link between us and the Great War. Now we have to rely on the work of historians, archaeologists and educators to help us understand the events from one of the most climactic periods in human history – and understanding them helps us respect the memory of those who went through them. History and archaeology are brought together to inform DIGGING IN, and the trenches reconstructed in Pollok Country Park will make their own unique contribution to our understanding.

The University of Glasgow’s Centre for Battlefield Archaeology has conducted several projects on the Western Front. Some of them are described below.

Mametz

The Battle of the Somme in 1916 was notorious for the huge losses suffered by the British and their allies as they went over the top and advanced into No Man’s Land towards the German trenches. The events at Mametz suggested that things could be done differently, and it was this largely unknown story that archaeology helped bring to light. The project aimed to recover the remains of a British secret weapon known as a Livens Flame Projector. This giant flame thrower was designed to operate from a tunnel, or sap, running beneath No Man’s Land, from which a telescopic monitor head would fill the enemy trench with liquid fire. The weapon was to be used along with other saps through which soldiers would advance underground, at no risk from machine gun fire. They would then pop up through exits very close to the enemy trench, which theoretically by then would have been disabled by the flame projector and other weapons like mortars.

The idea was fine in theory, but several practical issues prevented its being widely adopted. First and most importantly, the military establishment did not like the idea of men going into battle underground; it just wasn’t done. On a more practical level, the device was cumbersome. It needed 300 men to carry all its parts and then it had to be assembled underground, all within the battle zone. When troops tried to install one of these in a sap at Mametz on 31 June, 1916, it was foiled by a German artillery barrage that happened to take place at the same time. Some parts were dropped into the entrance of the sap. The entrance collapsed as a result of the shelling and, as the war diary of the Royal Engineers unit records, they were lost beyond recall.

A team of archaeologists set out to investigate the spot where this happened, which was identified through historical research. They excavated an extensive stretch of front line and communication trenches. The only part of the underground system surviving was that destroyed by the German shell. In the rest, including inside the tunnel itself, the timber had been salvaged later for use elsewhere on the front. Various parts of the flame thrower were recovered from the collapsed entrance and the sloping passage (incline) that led down to the end of the tunnel. These included clamps used to hold the pipes together, two pieces of the main valve assembly – bolted together and still working after 90 years underground – and two large pipes through which the fuel was fed. These are the only parts known to survive anywhere of the Livens device, which was manufactured in Lincoln.

Not all such operations ended in failure though. At Carnoy, about two miles from Mametz, a flame projector was deployed successfully and all the British objectives were met with minimal casualties.

Mont St Quentin

The battle for Mont St Quentin, a high hill near the town of Peronne beside the River Somme, was one of the key stepping stones that led to the German surrender, following a series of victories over the preceding summer. The attack was carried out by Australian troops who crossed the river and charged up the hill ‘yelling like banshees’, according to an eye-witness. Although the Germans had been expecting the attack, its ferocity prompted many to flee and soon the Australians were in the wood at the top of the hill. Despite a determined German counter attack, which temporarily pushed the attackers back off the summit, the position was taken and over the next couple of days the town of Peronne fell into Allied hands.

Archaeological investigation of the top of the hill focussed on a German communication trench, which appears on a 1916 trench map and is still partly visible in the wood. Closer examination showed that there were in fact two parallel trenches, just a couple of metres apart. The one shown on the map was fairly straight with some slight twists, while the other ran a zig-zag course. The ground in the wood was also peppered with shell holes, many of them quite small and made by Australian field guns bombarding the position. Shell holes on the edge of the wood and in the trenches themselves were larger, and shell fragments containing zinc showed these were made by German artillery. It seems the Germans were firing on their own positions in order to dislodge the attackers before their own counter attack.

Putting all of the archaeological evidence together, and in the absence of detailed written accounts, it looks very much as though the Germans dug the zig-zag trench in the few days before the attack to beef up the hill’s defenses. Up til then they had been mostly left alone up there, with the Allied advances of 1916 never getting that far. However, it seems that at the last minute they realised their communication trench was too straight to provide cover from artillery, as the shockwave from a direct hit would travel along the trench and kill anyone in its path. Digging a zig-zag trench would limit how far the blast could travel and make it far more effective as a protective structure.

Vampyr

As artillery improved over the course of the war, so life on the surface, even with the protection of trenches, became extremely hazardous. For this reason underground shelters were built, many of them including accommodation, headquarters and hospitals. One of many thousands of these was constructed by Royal Engineers at Vampyr Farm in early 1918 (features were named after the letter given to a particular sector on maps and this was ‘V’ sector). With the long lost location identified, clay filling the timber-lined shaft was cleared by injecting it with water and sucking the liquid out into a settling pond. The team helped the process along by puddling the mixture while wearing waders, and the experience was like descending in a slow-moving mud elevator. The shaft was over 30 metres deep and the tunnel system leading off it was full of water. Enough of this water was drained to allow a tethered remote submersible to film the roof and check its condition – there was every possibility that the water that had flooded the system was all that was holding it up!

With the roof examined and judged to be safe, the water was drained. This allowed entry into the system, which included two stairways that could be climbed part way from the inside but had collapsed from the surface. The floor of the structure was covered in liquid mud and the roof dripped like a shipwreck freshly raised from the seabed. The mud was removed using the pressure washer, which also revealed artefacts like tools and water pump that still worked. At this deep level the structure was carved into chalk, with girders made from railway track lengths, corrugated iron and timber keeping the friable rock at bay – though in places it had burst through and created mounds in the passages. There were recesses where triple bunks would have been constructed, but these were empty. In fact, the whole place had the feel of a building site and was clearly unfinished. This was because work had been stopped by the German spring offensive of 1918. In the face of this rapid advance, the British gave up the ground in which the dugout was being constructed and retired towards the town of Ypres. A German water bottle and bullet were found, but otherwise there was little evidence that they made much use of the structure. In any case, they would soon be pushed back by the Allied counter-attack that ushered in the last phase of the war.

At the beginning of 1918, for soldiers serving at the front there were few signs that the war would soon end. This is obvious from the serious undertaking of digging a deep dugout like Vampyr that late on in the conflict.

Fromelles

The battle of Fromelles was fought in northern France on 19-20 July 1916. It was the first time Australian troops had seen action on the Western Front. They fought alongside British troops, and both Australians and British were mown down by German machine guns as they advanced over No Man’s Land – the Germans had built concrete bunkers that protected them from the shelling that preceded the advance. Although some Allied soldiers got into the German trench and even beyond it, the operation was a disaster, and with no clear objectives many men were killed or captured as they tried to get back to their own lines. Nearly 2,000 Australians lost their lives, along with many German and British soldiers.

The Germans buried many of the Australian and British dead in mass graves behind their lines, some in pits dug behind Pheasant Wood. Great efforts were made after the war, up until 1921, to locate battle graves, recover bodies and give them a military burial in one of the many Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries in France and Belgium. Like tens of thousands of others, though, the men in the pits at Fromelles were not found and the site was eventually forgotten.

That was until an Australian school teacher discovered documents that suggested the graves were at Pheasant Wood, including the orders for the German burial party. In 2006 the Australian government gave archaeologists from Glasgow University the task of gathering evidence at the site to establish whether the graves were there or not. Using a variety of techniques, including geophysical survey, metal detector survey and more documentary research, they found evidence for the graves. In 2008 the archaeologists returned, this time to dig exploratory trenches, and recorded the pits and the bodies they held. In 2010, the remains of 250 Australian and possibly some British soldiers were recovered from five pits, and each was given an individual burial with full military honours in a newly established cemetery. Fromelles proved to be the largest wartime mass grave discovered since the immediate aftermath of the conflict. Since 2010, nearly 200 of these men have been identified through DNA analysis – they have had their identities returned and they number among the missing no longer.