Great War Dig at Cannock Chase

Digging for victory: unearthing the Messines model at Brocton Camp
Digging for victory: unearthing the Messines model at Brocton Camp

On Monday September 8th archaeologists on Cannock Chase began excavating a model which helped troops achieve one of the most successful offensives of the Great War. The model represents the town of Messines in Belgium and its surrounding landscape.

…In 1917, the Messines Ridge formed an anchor in the German front lines, but in June, a week-long offensive of infantry attack, aerial bombardment and heavy shelling resulted in an Allied victory

The battle was fought in the build-up to the much larger Passchendaele offensive which would begin in July of that year.

The New Zealand Rifle Brigade fought at Messines and following their return to Brocton Camp, they designed a scaled replica of their sector of the battlefield built to serve as a training aid and as an act of commemoration.

Built in 1918 by German prisoners of war interned nearby, the scaled terrain model was and is the only surviving replica of its kind in the UK.  Under the guidance of the Rifle Brigade, they built the model and rendered it in concrete.  Fossilised in the concrete are trench railway lines, trenches and roads; contour lines are also represented and the model was properly aligned to the compass.

After 1918, the model is known to have survived during the inter-war years when it became a tourist attraction with a custodian who acted as a guide to the site.

But with the outbreak of the Second World War the site was once again used as a military training camp and the area became overgrown and eventually buried.

Now Staffordshire County Council, in a project funded by Natural England, is excavating the model to capture a record for future generations of the role it played in World War I.  Following this, it will be carefully protected and reburied to ensure its continued survival.

Experts from the county are working closely with specialists from No Man’s Land and local volunteers to ensure the 35m by 40m site and its environment are protected.

On September 20th, Stephen Dean, Staffordshire County Council’s Principal Archaeologist, said: “The main area of the town of Messines has now been excavated and  the volunteers are now moving to the south of the town to join up with the small area of fighting trenches that were excavated during the first week of the dig.”

“The level of detail is incredible, particularly the depiction of bombed out buildings and field boundaries.  Before the excavation we weren’t sure how much would survive, but we’ve shown that quite a bit survives and this is a great example of where archaeology can really support the historical record.”

At the time of writing, key finds included:

• The town of Messines which survives in fairly good condition with just  one area of damage around the church.

• Fighting trenches protecting the western side of the town.  The trenches are rendered in a fine sandy mortar and generally survive in good condition.

• Roads are depicted across the model using pebbles similar to the cobbled roads throughout Belgium at that time.

Once the site is fully exposed, details will be photographed and recorded  before it is preserved by being carefully reburied in mid October.

Due to the location, scale and fragile nature of the model it is impossible for it to be moved or left uncovered. Philip Atkins, Staffordshire County Council’s Leader, said:  “With the approaching 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, it seems the right time to excavate the model to ensure that the legacy of the men who served at the camp lives on for years to come.”