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Museum’s replica trench brings First World War to life

By Burton Mail  |  Posted: February 26, 2014

  • 17/02/14 Trench tour New WWI trench system, Staffordshire Regiment museum, Whittington....

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IN the officer’s dugout trench maps hang on the wall while the distant rumble of heavy guns is only broken by the occasional crack of a sniper’s bullet.

While it isn’t quite the Western Front, the Staffordshire Regiment Museum’s new replica trench is arguably the closest many will come in the 21st century to an authentic Great War experience.

Authenticity had been at the heart of the project to build the 500ft trench, which after two years of planning and built at a cost of £138,000 now lies beside the museum at Whittington Barracks.

Like the First World War positions it seeks to emulate, the trench is dug more than six feet into the earth and weaves in a zig-zag pattern.

A first aid post, sniper’s position and dugouts are based on wartime designs, while a 1914 copy of the Manual of Field Engineering was used to sink a mining gallery.

Concealed speakers blare out a crescendo of artillery fire and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire to create a Great War ‘soundscape’.

Joss Musgrove-Knibb, the museum’s marketing consultant who showed me around the trench, said the soundscape gave a realistic impression of what soldiers would have heard when under fire.

She said: “It gives the sound of what it would be like if a sniper or the big guns were firing, so it’s an emotive experience.

“With a sniper there would be a crack then a bang from the bullet – it’s not like it is on television.”

The trench is lined with corrugated iron panels, sandbags and wooden duckboards; these would have been vital for keeping the soldiers out of flooded positions and dry, Joss said.

Built into the side of the trench are ‘scrape holes’ where men would have slept or sought shelter from the elements.

“You would get as many men in there as you could because it would keep you all warm as much as anything else,” Joss said.

In the first aid post genuine wartime medical equipment and artefacts line the shelves while a short walk along the trench is the more roomy officer’s dugout.

Inside, a 1:10,000 scale trench map of Gommecourt, where the Staffords attacked on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, is on the wall. British positions are marked in blue, the Germans in red.

“In here the officers would have to look at maps and read orders,” Joss said.

“It was a troglodyte existence because they spent so much time underground.

“Most of the time not an awful lot was happening so the officers would have to keep their men occupied.

“They would be doing jobs, shoring up the trench walls, writing home and de-lousing.

“Body lice would have been rife and could give you trench fever. Soldiers would run their shirts over a candle flame and that would get rid of them.”

Next to the officer’s dugout lies a dimly-lit entrance which leads underground into a mining gallery.

After trench warfare took hold at the end of 1914 both sides resorted to mine warfare in a bid to break the stalemate.

A complex network of galleries were driven underneath the enemy’s trenches, packed with explosives and then detonated.

The tunnel is again built to wartime specifications, and given that the average height of a British solider being five feet and six inches tall means there is little room for manoeuvre inside.

“Staffordshire soldiers were very much in demand because they had experience of working in mines,” Joss said.

“The men who did this were ever so brave. They would set explosive devices to blow up the trenches from underneath, but they would have been quiet because sound travels well underground.

“They would sometimes break into each other tunnels and fight underground with knives as well.”

The tour was part of a Discovery Day event held at the museum, which included uniformed guides such as 69-year-old Philip Schofield dishing out their knowledge on everything war-related.

Mr Schofield has volunteered at the museum for 12 years and served in the Warwickshire Regiment for six years in the 1960s.

He said: “The trench really is one of those areas that people can go in and get a feel for what it was like when bombs were being dropped on them, you can feel what those trenches must have felt like.

“The atmosphere can be electric with the sound effects. When it’s a quiet day it has an amazing feel, it really transports you back to the First World War and gives you the chance to see what it was like, how they coped being waist-deep in mud and with the rats.”

The Staffordshire Regiment Museum is open all year from 10am until 4pm from Monday to Friday, and from 12.30pm until 4pm on Bank Holidays.

It is open from 12.30pm until 4pm on weekends from Easter until Remembrance Sunday.

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