World War One Battlefield Tunnels Discovered Under Salisbury Plain

Archaeologists working in Wiltshire have identified a unique network of First World War tunnels under Salisbury Plain.

Work is underway across the Salisbury Plain Training Area to prepare for the Service personnel returning from Germany in 2019 under the Army Basing Programme (ABP).This work has uncovered a unique network of First World War tunnels on MOD land in Larkhill, which is earmarked for over 400 new Army family homes.

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The development is part of wider plans to accommodate 4,000 additional Service personnel and their families who will be based on and around the Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) by 2019 under the ABP. In addition, the MOD is investing over £1.1bn in the area boosting the local economy and providing around 2,500 bed spaces for single soldiers, just over 1,300 new homes for Service families and the construction, conversion or refurbishment of nearly 250 other buildings.

The tunnels are part of a First World War battlefield used to train men to fight in and under the trenches of France and Belgium. The soldiers have left the mine galleries deep in the chalk but they have also left over a hundred inscriptions written by soldiers training here between 1915 and 1918.Archaeologists have been working alongside specialist engineers to investigate the underground battlefield.

ABP Project Manager Andy Corcoran said: “It is extremely exciting to be involved in a project of such historical and archaeological significance. Every care has been taken to ensure the site has been carefully managed. Works across the site are progressing to allow construction of the new Service Families Accommodation to start to enable the return of Service personnel and their families from Germany in 2019.”

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The First World War is famous for its trenches. Trench systems also included dugouts – underground troop shelters, headquarters, medical posts and stores – that were relatively safe from the fighting on the surface but mining was also a weapon of war. Both sides dug tunnels under no-man’s-land and laid large explosive charges to destroy enemy soldiers and their trenches. Both sides played cat and mouse, digging towards each other and trying to stop the enemy from placing their explosives.

At Larkhill there are both dug outs and mines snaking under no-man’s-land. There are listening posts, where soldiers used stethoscopes to hear the enemy miners at work. We can even see how soldiers trained in setting explosives to destroy the enemy tunnel and bury the miners alive.

Martin Brown (WYG) Archaeological Consultant to the Army Basing Programme said: “This is the first time anyone has found and excavated training tunnels like these. We found them as part of the largest single investigation of First World training trenches anywhere in the world and our excavations have revealed this story for the first time. That we didn’t expect these underground remains shows that much remains left to discover, even from only a century ago.”

The trenches and mines are directly related to battles fought 100 years ago: The Somme in 1916 began with a number of mines blown, while the Battle of Messines began on 7th June 1917 withthe detonation of 19 mines under the German trenches.

Soldiers training in the trenches have left their names to be found by the archaeologists. Over one hundred pieces of graffiti have been found written on the chalk of trenches, and tunnels. The names include decorated heroes and one deserter. The names come from Wiltshire men, from West Yorkshire coal miners, from the two Halls brothers who signed their names and wrote “Semper Fidelis” (Ever Faithful) beneath.

There are lots of Australian names, as well as British, recording men from the Australian Third Division, who trained on Salisbury Plain in 1916.

Si Cleggett, Project Manager at Wessex Archaeology said: “Larkhill has been a unique opportunity for our Wessex Archaeology teams, it has been a humbling experience to stand and read the names of young soldiers in the very spaces they occupied before leaving for war.Having stood in their footprints a century after their time at Larkhill, we really will remember them.”

Most exciting was the discovery of a chalk plaque inscribed with the names of Australian Bombers – soldiers specially trained to use hand grenades. One name is of Private Lawrence Carthage Weathers, who won the Victoria Cross in September 1918 for attacking a machine gun post with grenades, capturing itand taking 180 prisoners.

The archaeologists have cleared 8km of trenches;they have found relics of training from grenades and ammunition to food tins and even a tin that once held an Australian brand of toffees, while a bucket had been turned into a brazier to keep men warm.

In addition to the tunnels a wealth of prehistoric remains, including a Neolithic enclosure some 600 years older than Stonehenge and 4000 year old burials have also been discovered.

The ABP, WYG and Wessex Archaeology have been supported by a range of specialist contractors including GABLE, Cundall and The Sirius Group.

Steve White, Specialist Project Manager at GABLE said: “GABLE Specialist Projects has been involved in a wide range of contracts throughout the UK and Europe but the involvement in the Larkhill Tunnels project represented a unique opportunity to be a part of a story of unprecedented archaeological significance. It has been a privilege to develop solutions to this project and GABLE feels humbled by the opportunity to help investigate such an important piece of history.”

Jim Allen, Partner and Head of Geotechnical Engineering at Cundall said:“Cundall has played an important role in this sensitive and significant project. As well as using innovative surveying techniques to locate and map this previously undocumented network of WW1 tunnels, Cundall has also provided the project archaeologists with safe access into structures undisturbed for the last 100 years.The extensive tunnel remains revealed are testament to the incredible skill and bravery of the miners who constructed them and soldiers who trained in them before facing the horrors of the western front.”

Chris Rudd, Associate Geotechnical at The Sirius Group said: “The Larkhill WWI tunnel ground investigation has provided The Sirius Group with the opportunity to apply our extensive ground engineering expertise. Our work has helped to successfully capture and preserve information for future generations.Larkhill has brought with it numerous challenges that have been successfully overcome and it has been a pleasure to be part of the project and be involved first hand with uncovering such a historical and influential site in world history.”


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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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