The Messines Terrain Model, Cannock Chase completed” Cannock trench 002: “Digging practice trenches on Cannock Chase with the power station in the background. Credit : Staffordshire County Council
A scaled model of a Belgian battlefield built on Cannock Chase during the First World War to prepare soldiers for trench warfare is to be unearthed.
In a project led by Staffordshire County Council and funded by Natural England, the replica of the Messines Ridge near Ypres – sight of one of the most famous battles of the Great War – will be carefully excavated. The model covered an area roughly the size of a tennis court.
The British Army constructed two training camps on Cannock Chase in Staffordshire during the war to prepare over 500,000 men from across the UK and abroad for fighting on the Western Front. The Messines terrain model, created for training soldiers, was based on aerial photography of the Belgium landscape taken in advance of a major offensive in 1917. The model was constructed after the successful action, in part also to commemorate the role of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade in this battle.
The two training camps were each designed to hold approximately 20,000 men – the size of an infantry division at that time – and lay within a large training complex. Soldiers trained on the Chase between 1915 and 1918 and would have spent several months at the camps to learn the fighting skills required on the Western Front. The camps were dismantled when the guns fell silent although the remains survive as some of the most complete Great War archaeological sites in this country.
This project aims to reveal more about Staffordshire’s involvement in the First World War, and act as a further reminder for future generations of the horrors and sacrifice made by thousands of troops in the fields of Flanders and North West France.
Part of the project will focus on the removal of scrub and bramble from a surviving area of barrack blocks close to the White House car park. This will be followed by interpretation of this part of the camp as part of the Great War commemorations.
The major part of the project however, involves the careful excavation, recording and reburial of the Messines model which was designed by Commonwealth engineers but was probably built by German Prisoners of War in late 1917.
Staffordshire County Councillor, Pat Corfield, Cabinet Member for Culture and Communities said:
“As we approach the centenary of the start of the First World War in 2014, it is essential we continue to teach future generations about the legacy of the conflict.
“We must never forget the great sacrifices made and this exciting excavation project will help achieve that and showcase Staffordshire’s role in the Great War.
“As custodians of this important landscape we want to bring the site to life and learn what it was like for men from across the UK and our allied countries, as they trained for trench warfare.
“Staffordshire has as good a claim as anywhere in Britain to be the national focus for the commemoration of World War I. The National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas is a national and international centre for commemoration, while the Cannock War Graves, the Stafford Regiment Museum and many more memorials offer poignant reminders of the Great War.”
Sarah Montgomery, managing director of the National Memorial Arboretum, said: “This is an exciting cultural development for Staffordshire that will build on its reputation as a heritage and remembrance centre. It will also be another excellent reason for people throughout the UK and beyond to visit the county.”
The interpretation of the Messines model and the training camps will be based at the Marquis Drive Visitor Centre; home to an original Great War barrack block rescued and rebuilt by the County Council. It is hoped that from here, visitors will be able to experience an actual or digital model of the Messines trench system, and understand how they were used to prepare the troops for battle.
Some exploratory work has already been completed at the site and it is hoped that work will commence next year following agreement with Natural England. Experts from the County will be working closely with their colleagues to ensure that the site is protected as it is excavated, whilst minimising any damage to the surrounding wildlife habitats.
The project also comes at a time when Staffordshire County Council was awarded £80k by the Arts Council England to develop a Staffordshire Great War Trail to support plans for the county’s commemoration of the Great War.