Historian Builds 60 Foot WW1 Trench in His Garden to Re-enact Survival as a Soldier

Category: Media & Culture / Nov 12, 2012 11:56AM EDT
Military historian and former history teacher Andrew Robertshaw has built a 60ft (18 metres) WWI trench in his back garden to reflect on life as a British soldier during the Great War. The project initially involved shifting hundreds of tonnes of earth from the garden to create the trench which also features a kitchen, an infantry room, and an officers' dugout, complete with barbed wire and sandbags. "I took a piece of basically clear plastic, as big as my piece of land, took an original trench map and kind of worked out where it would fit and plonked it down and as far as I am concerned, this will be here, on the edge of Railway Wood, near Hooge on the outskirts of Ypres," explained Robertshaw of how the project began. Robertshaw received some help for this project from volunteers and soldiers of the 23 Pioneer Regiment Royal Logistics Corp who had recently returned from Afghanistan The aim of building the trench was to gain a real appreciation of what daily life was like in the trenches beyond the well-documented military assaults and gas attacks. The trench was based on an original trench map but also had to take into account the geology and topography constraints of the land, and this resulted in a reconstruction of an original system built by British soldiers near Hooge. The characteristics are typically British and Andrew has strived to ensure it is authentic and will give people a real insight into the claustrophobic and harsh conditions of trench living. "British trenches are if anything over engineered, were very keen to use corrugated iron, we use lots and lots of steel and really they have a look of their own and if you excavate a trench as I do, archaeologically you know as soon as you hit a british trench, because you've got the wrinkly tin, you'll get the upright steel posts," he said. Once the trench was constructed, Robertshaw conducted a 24 hour experiment where 10 men lived in the trench, a combination of archaeologists and re-enactors, wearing authentic uniforms, eating only rations of the period, complete with gas masks and rifles that fire blanks. "The guys came in, they were a mixture of archaeologists that I dressed up to give them an idea of what it might be like and also to inform them for next time they did some work and some re-enactors. Every single person within about half an hour said: 'I wasn't ready for this.' No matter how much planning they did, no matter how much they thought they knew; they knew absolutely nothing. Once they got in there, things got dropped, covered in mud, lost, they couldn't find things, they weren't working as a buddy team, they hadn't thought about what they'd put in their pockets, it was incredible. There was nothing groundbreaking, we're not going to say we really understood the Great War, but what we understood is the individual experiences and how complicated it actually was," Robertshaw said. Since then numerous visitors have come to get a sense of the horrors of living in essentially a hole in the ground. However being located in a semi rural area not far from a major airport, one might wonder what the neighbours thought of this project and ongoing activities. "On hot days people would come to the fence here and bring us cups of tea and things and they knew, we could hardly make a trench system and I had an open day last Sunday and I said if you want to come on the land and come and have a look at it, see us filming and they did, so there are no great mysteries I don't think, I think the occasional bang was a problem so we did some work on bonfire night and nobody noticed," said the historian. Since building the dugout last summer Robertshaw has sold his Surrey house and moved, but he has retained ownership of the land containing the trench to continue his endeavours. Even in the comfort of daylight, just moving around in the narrow trench in muddy and sometimes waterlogged conditions is challenging, and wearing period clothing gives an added sense of appreciation. But between 1914 and 1918 the horrors of living in a trench was a daily reality. Soldiers had to deal with sleep deprivation, the weather, living in a confined space and the tedium of maintaining the trench as well as the dangers of the conflict itself. With a focus on Remembrance Day, it is particularly poignant to reflect on what British troops endured during this period in history. "The most dreadful thing about it, it was just exhausting, if you get just three or four hours of sleep a day you are doing well, you'll sleep in the afternoon, you're working all night, your nocturnal. If it's wet, you're wet, if it's cold, you're cold. If the trenches fill with mud, then your feet get soaked and it's just a point where you get bone numbing coldness. I mean yes, you might get shot or you might get blown up but for the most, these guys it was just that tedium of being exhausted, of being wet, of the food being boring and just the constant labour to keep this things in one piece," Robertshaw said. Andrew Robertshaw is a military historian and author of a number of historical war books. A former teacher, he is now the curator of the Royal Logistics Corps Museum in Deepcut, Surrey. He was also chief historical consultant on Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" film, giving advice on issues such as props, costume, armoury and badges. He is currently busy launching a new website through which school children can virtually explore his dugout as an educational resource based on photographs and film taken during his project.