https://insideDIO.blog.gov.uk/2017/09/18/veterans-excavating-first-world-war-training-trenches/

Veterans excavating First World War training trenches

 

Alex is a DIO archaeologist. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2017]
Alex is a DIO archaeologist. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2017]
Hi, I’m Alex Sotheran and I’m a DIO archaeologist. I am lucky enough that some of my work involves Operation Nightingale, a programme which facilitates archaeological digs for sick, injured and wounded service personnel and veterans.

Operational Nightingale is a ground-breaking programme which was originally set up to provide educational services to sick and injured soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan, aiming to aid their transition back into civilian life. The participants have great things to say about it and it’s a win-win as the MOD gets to learn more about the history and archaeology of the Defence training estate, which we work hard to protect and preserve.

The programme was initially created by DIO and the Defence Archaeology Group and, as it developed and operations in Afghanistan ceased, the focus moved on to helping veterans develop new skills and get involved in archaeological investigations.

Some of the participants taking part in the excavation. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2017]
Some of the participants taking part in the excavation. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2017]
Participants in Op Nightingale are taught about the technical aspects of field archaeology, developing new skills which are vital to archaeologists. These include surveying, geophysics, ground scrutiny, site and team management, mapping, navigation and the physical ability to cope with hard manual work in unpredictable weather.  These on-the-job lessons come from professional archaeologists, like me and colleagues from DIO, the University of Leicester, Breaking Ground Heritage and Wessex Archaeology.

Left to right: Alex Sotheran, DIO archaeologist; Sam Fairhead, Wessex Archaeology; Stewart Bowman, veteran participant; Dickie Bennett, Breaking Ground Heritage. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2017]
Left to right: Alex Sotheran, DIO archaeologist; Sam Fairhead, Wessex Archaeology; Stewart Bowman, veteran participant; Dickie Bennett, Breaking Ground Heritage. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2017]
In previous Operational Nightingale digs we have explored diverse artefacts, including a Roman hypocaust at Caerwent Training Area, a downed Spitfire on Salisbury Plan and a Byzantine harbour at Dreamer’s Bay in Cyprus.

Barry Buddon

Op Nightingale worked in partnership with Wessex Archaeology and Breaking Ground Heritage at Barry Buddon in Angus, Scotland to excavate suspected World War One training trenches. This particular project was known as Exercise Angus Holdfast and it aimed to identify the locations of the training trenches and look for artefacts to help date them more accurately.

A Google Maps aerial view of the trench system at Barry Buddon Training Centre. [Google]
A Google Maps aerial view of the trench system at Barry Buddon Training Centre. [Google]
We had two weeks to excavate the trenches as a team. Most of us stayed in the Mess meaning that those who were new to Op Nightingale made friends and cemented bonds quickly. Many of the veterans involved suffer from mental health issues, including PTSD, so working alongside our archaeologists and learning these new skills is therapeutic for them.

This was the first project that Operation Nightingale has undertaken in Scotland – hopefully there will be many more to follow. Remains that we found have been recorded so they can be protected looking forwards, meaning Op Nightingale is contributing to the MOD’s aim of maintaining and preserving heritage assets.

Bullet 'splashes' and a suspected Martini Henry bullet from the time of the Zulu War, found during the excavations. [Crown Copyright/MOD 2017]
Bullet 'splashes' and a suspected Martini Henry bullet from the time of the Zulu War, found during the excavations. [Crown Copyright/MOD 2017]
The trenches we’ve excavated have the tell-tale marks of the presence of sandbags – you can see the black lines in the photograph, which mark the line of sandbags.

The black lines on the trench walls mark the presence of sandbags. [Crown Copyright / MOD2017]
The black lines on the trench walls mark the presence of sandbags. [Crown Copyright / MOD2017]
This makes us think that these were a type of trench known as breastworks, which were used in parts of Belgium during the First World War. It was a technique used where the ground was too wet to dig a full depth trench. Instead of digging a deeper trench as was done in other parts of the Western Front, a shallower trench would be dug and the sides built up with sandbags to protect the soldiers.

Breastworks diagram from 1921 Manual of Field Works. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2017]
Breastworks diagram from 1921 Manual of Field Works. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2017]
The dig at Barry Buddon was a massive success – it fulfilled the aims of Operation Nightingale and allowed wounded and sick veterans to learn new skills whilst gathering interesting archaeological information.

Here's a video of the project:

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