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Ballykinler military heritage uncovered

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Archaeology, Environment and Ecology

My name is Dr Heather Montgomery and I am a Project Officer for Material Cultures and Landscapes at the Living Legacies WW1 Engagement Centre located within the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen's University Belfast (QUB).   I am very pleased to share with you the details of our project which won the Heritage Project Award at this year's Sanctuary Awards ceremony.

Sanctuary Award - Ballykinler Heritage Project [Crown Copyright, MOD 2017]
Sanctuary Award - Ballykinler Heritage Project [Crown Copyright, MOD 2017]
As part of my recent doctoral studies, supervised by Dr Colm Donnelly of the Centre for Archaeological Field Work (CAF), at QUB I was pleased to work in partnership with DIO and the Department for Communities Northern Ireland to find out more about the WWI trenches located at Ballykinler in County Down. This landscape was the primary training ground for the 36th Ulster Division during the First World War, with many of the men going on to fight at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The key objectives of my work were to increase our knowledge of the features within the current archaeologically protected (scheduled) areas within the modern military landscape, and to provide a more accurate interpretation of the physical remains of ‘training for war’ on the campus. This also involved archaeological excavation at the training trenches, work which revealed new insights into the training regime at Ballykinler.

The excavation focused on four main areas at Ballykinler aimed at identifying evidence for 1) the use of a ‘final assault course’ for bayonet training; 2) the use of the simple ‘S’ trench during 1914 and the early months of 1915 training; 3) the subsequent digging and use of a crenellated facsimile frontline (frontline replica training trenches, typically constructed in a pattern which in plan resembled battlements, also known as the Greek Key pattern), and associated strong-point in 1915/16; and 4) the replacement and modification of earlier trench features, as training needs changed and the War progressed.

Ballykinler trench excavation [Crown Copyright, MOD 2017]
Ballykinler trench excavation [Crown Copyright, MOD 2017]
Perhaps one of the most significant of our findings came from a ‘bunker area’ located just off the communication trench behind a practice frontline. We discovered that original sandbag revetment had been preserved in the sandy soil for the past 100 years, giving us a very clear picture of the different ways the British Army had both used and developed this area to train throughout the course of the war. Starting as a simple ‘slot trench’ which was then widened and modified. A set of steps were cut into the sandy soil and a dugout constructed to facilitate a machine gun position within the trench system.  Previously, it was believed by some that the men of the Irish Divisions raised in Ireland were sent into battle with little or no training, effectively unaware of what they might face on reaching the battle front.  Our findings suggest that the training provided to the Irish regiments was in fact professional, relevant and based on lessons learned at the Front.

Ballykinler trench excavations [Crown Copyright, MOD 2017]
Ballykinler trench excavations [Crown Copyright, MOD 2017]
Our work at Ballykinler now provides a foundation for the further study of the training of Irish soldiers in the British Army during the First World War. Further survey work and archaeological excavation is required at other sites such as Magilligan, County Londonderry, and those in the republic of Ireland including Finner, County Donegal, and Kilworth, County Cork.

The fieldwork has also provided information that can now be used to help manage and protect the site. The archaeologists who took part in the excavation developed a greater understanding of the physical reality of ‘Training for War’, consequently shedding light on the experiences of the soldiers who trained at Ballykinler during the First World War.


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  1. Comment by Tommy Humphries posted on

    I love military history, and being an ex soldier I am very interested in any digging at ballykinler, I was told by a local who resides near the base that the American army buried army vehicles in the sand dunes, rather than shipping them back home. I don't kjownifnthis is fact nor fiction, but no am furious Jon the less.


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