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Week 3 of the Perham Down WWI Practice Trenches Investigation

Two and a half weeks of non-stop digging draws to a successful close. Most trenches are completed and recorded by the weekend, but the arrival of Rob and Scotty, with help from Matt, means that we can have a final look at the communications trench that runs parallel to the front line. An interesting aspect of this trench is the collapsed timberwork that was found in its base.
The last recording is completed in the front line of the trenches, and here another surprise awaits us. Dickie and Richard spot a piece chalk sticking out of the bottom of the section, but it doesn’t look like a natural lump − and indeed isn’t! When it is removed by Kathy we can make out what looks like part of a cap badge carved in the surface and some very lightly inscribed lettering. Undoubtedly there is more to be revealed when this is deciphered.


The geophysics information gathered by Jen, Becky, Rok, Ali and Nick over the first two weeks has been processed, with excellent results, illustrating very clearly the layout of the ‘German’ practice trenches in the area we are working in. The white ‘halos’ indicate metal present, much of it probably corrugated iron, particularly in the shelters. The geophysics plot shows more detail than can be made out on the aerial photographs, and also highlights several differences between the 1915 plan of the trenches and the layout that was eventually dug.
On the last Sunday we hold a short ceremony to remember those who, a century ago, took part in exercises in these practice trenches, in particular those who were then sent to fight at the Somme – and never returned. As a result of Richard Broadhead’s research we now know the names and details, and have photographs, of more than 30 of the soldiers, from the Middlesex and Essex Regiments, most of whom were only in their late teens or early 20s.


Tuesday sees the excavations backfilled, and the hay field returned to almost how we found it when we started on July 11th. Every one of the seven areas excavated has turned out to have an interesting story to tell, and what has survived, and what we have learnt about this system of practice trenches, have far exceeded expectations. We have only looked at a tiny fraction of this extensive system, so it does indeed represent an important historical resource, particularly given the possibly unique contemporary documentary evidence that we have to go with it.


So, what next? First, the finds are being cleaned and recorded by our keen and ever-reliable volunteers – the screw pickets, spent blank rounds and food and drink tins from WWI, and a variety of exploded ordnance pieces from WWII. Also, the ordnance and related pieces have been identified by Mark, who is also undertaking research on the exercises that took place in these trenches. Finally, later this year, we will produce a report on the excavations.
However, perhaps we might also consider another season of fieldwork – there are other elements of the Perham Down system we could look at, including one of the redoubts, a kitchen and a Battalion Commander’s post. With Breaking Ground Heritage now up and running, such a project covers all bases in terms of archaeological research and training, and this has proved an all-round winner in terms of interest and enjoyment.


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