The corner of an English field that is for ever a foreign ‘no man’s land’: WWI training camp found on south coast

The site appears to have been used for highly realistic mock battles – in preparation for more lethal encounters on the Western Front

Archaeologists have discovered a previously unknown First World War ‘battlefield’ – on the south coast of England. The discovery is of huge archaeological and historical significance.

Located near Gosport, Hampshire, the site appears to have been used for highly realistic mock battles – in preparation for more lethal encounters some 150 miles away on the Western Front.

It’s the most sophisticated and best preserved First World War battle-training complex ever found in Britain.

Covering some 50 acres, the long-forgotten facility consists of opposing ‘British’ and ‘German’ trench systems – with a 300 metre wide no-mans-land in between.

Both systems consist of a frontline trench, rear ‘support trenches’ and a network of communication trenches. Several forward observation trenches, protruding from what was probably intended to represent the British front line, have also been found.

To add realism to this practice battlefield, craters appear to have been deliberately created in the no-mans-land between the two opposing trench systems.

What’s more, the two front-line trenches, each around 300 metres long – were both designed with a series of right-angled ‘zig-zags’ to prevent blast travelling along them. The site – discovered by Gosport Borough Council conservation officer, Robert Harper, was brought to light through a detailed examination of old aerial photographs.

 

It is located at Browndown Camp, just west of Gosport, on land which is still owned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) – but is accessible to the general public most of the time.

Up to two miles of the trenches on the site appear to have survived,  some to a depth of almost 1.5 metres – but are almost all obscured by thick bracken and gorse.

Detailed research is now likely to be carried out into the newly discovered complex at the site by historians and archaeologists, working in co-operation with Gosport Borough Council and the MoD – and it is conceivable that, at some stage, interpretive display boards will be installed to fully explain the site to the public.

It is currently not known which regiments trained at the complex or took part in any mock battles there.

Despite the fact that trench warfare training was a major aspect of British soldiers’ experience in the First World War, relatively little research has ever been carried out into that aspect of the conflict.

However, it is likely that battlefield training at Browndown Camp would have involved a very broad range of activities ranging from reconnaissance practice to mock battle charges.

Troops would almost certainly have used the complex to practice how to minimize casualties while advancing against the enemy – and how to clear German troops out of enemy trenches.

Historians, specialising in the First World War, say that it is likely that troops would also have practised night-time as well as day-time attacks – especially in the last two years of the conflict.

Smoke bombs and flairs may also have been used to create a realistic ambience and replicate the visibility problems caused by some types of poison gas. But deliberate smoke creation would also have been used to practise how to conceal advances and other activities from the enemy.

Experts say that, although realistic hand-to-hand combat was obviously difficult, it almost certainly formed part of battlefield training at places like Browndown. Fortunately, however, fixed bayonets would have been kept sheathed! A ‘telescopic’ blunt rifle bayonet, which gave way on impact, was invented a few years before the First World War for practising combat and may well have been used at the site.

Mock gas attack, casualty recovery and semaphore communication exercises are also likely to have featured in the training there.

“The newly discovered trench complex is an extremely significant discovery, likely to represent a training area in which both attacking and defence were practised by British troops during the First World War,” said Dr Stephen Bull, a leading military historian and author of a detailed book on British and other First World War battle tactics – Trench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front.

“The site is almost certainly unique in Britain in terms of its complexity. It’s particularly interesting that the complex shows a remarkable similarity to those trench system lay-outs illustrated in British Army trench construction manuals published in the middle years of the war,” he said.

The site is internationally important because of its size, sophistication and excellent state of preservation. Although trench construction has featured in warfare since at least Roman times, the technique was used more extensively during and after the Napoleonic Wars, especially in the Crimean conflict and the American Civil War. But in the First World War it was used on a truly grand scale – with more than 20,000 miles of trenches being dug on the Western Front alone.

In the Britain, there are at least a thousand known First World War military structures and other features which still survive today. However, the Council for British Archaeology and English Heritage believe that many more still await discovery. Others are known – but have never been properly recorded. The two organisations are now appealing to the public to help them find and record them.

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