Devizes Arts Festival Walk - Trenches and Training on Salisbury Plain

There was glorious weather for the walk led by Richard Osgood, Head of Archaeology for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO). We were given a wide ranging briefing of the work done by the DIO on preserving and protecting monuments and sites of historic and scientific interest on Salisbury Plain, which is the size of the Isle of Wight. For instance there are 27 Neolithic burial mounds on the Plain and military land in the UK contains more scheduled monuments than does the National Trust!

The group walked up to the World War 1 practice trenches still visible on Beacon Hill, near Bulford. Richard explained that soldiers in WW1 spent many months training before they were sent to France. We were shown why trenches were dug on the reverse side of a hill or incline, so attackers would be skylined as they came over the top and you could go about your work out of sight of the enemy.

Soldiers in training spend a lot of time in these trenches so that they would become accustomed to what life would be like “over there”. He pointed out that soldiers spent more time maintaining their trenches and resupplying the front line troops than they did actually fighting.

Richard demonstrated, with the help of a volunteer from the walkers, some of the type of clothing and equipment worn by an Australian volunteer, Alan James Mather who trained on the Plain in the Autumn of 1916, probably in these trenches.

Private Mather joined the army in January 1916 and after training went to France at the end of 1916 and he was killed in his first battle – Messines in June 1917. His body was found in 2008 together with a cap badge with a German pickelhaube helmet in his knapsack. His name was removed from those on the Menin Gate memorial following his military funeral in 2008.

The trenches we visited were dug around October 1915 in preparation for the July 1916 battles; others were dug to replicate those of the Germany forces. This all going to show how important training was to the army in WW1 as it is today.

Tony Scorer