Time flies when you’re having fun!

I volunteered for a week with Helen (Department of Lifelong Learning), Al (Uni of Sheffield lecturer/Widening Participation) and other fine folk to survey the WWI and WWII features near Redmires Reservoir overlooking Sheffield in South Yorkshire.

It was a lovely week (perhaps my perspective is skewed as, due to some other commitments, I had a day off – entirely coincidentally this was the wettest and coldest day of the week!) which really helped me clarify some thoughts on my own report about the practice trenches on Blaeberry Hill near Rothbury in Northumberland.

Similarities: Both are on common land (or at least, non-military-owned land). Both were used to train local volunteer battalions (the Sheffield Battalion, formed by university students, and the Tyneside Pioneers, containing many former miners). Both were near a temporary camp (the riverside camping area in Rothbury town, and the purpose-built WWI camp on Redmires Road). They demonstrate a variety of trench types and layouts in the larger scatter of surviving earthwork features (Redmires has simplified front line, reserve line and communications trench cuts and possibly a “modified shell-crater” feature, and a very cool broad-arrow oven feature; Blaeberry has front line, reserve line and communications trenches in several configurations over four groups of trenches; also present are dugouts and possible saps or listening posts).

Differences: No cooking-related features (or latrines) indicated long-term stays or camping at the site were found at Blaeberry; the camp down at Rothbury was also further away than the camp on Redmires road from the Redmires trenches. The trenches at Redmires appear to be much more diagrammatic than those at Blaeberry; talking onsite with Al and Helen, it might be that the trenches were not backfilled as originally thought, but originally excavated shallowly as demonstration pieces. This contrasts with Blaeberry where the trenches were full depth if not full length, and contained all the necessary features including drains, firing steps, parapets, and overhead cover.

Thoughts: Being able to compare Blaeberry Hill with Redmires has been very helpful; actually walking a site beats only reading a report hands down. Redmires has an excellent historical record, thanks to the research of Helen and participants from the Department of Lifelong Learning; they have uncovered records of three phases of training activity at the site in WWI and a great deal more about subsequent use of the training camp at the end of WWI (when it was repurposed as a POW camp) and WWII.

I hope further archival research will provide more context for the Blaeberry Hill trenches. I’ve been trying to figure out why the Blaeberry Hill trenches had been left to refill naturally (it’s a very sandy area and the trenches are almost totally backfilled through natural erosion, despite being over 7ft deep in places) rather than backfilled as on many other sites. It also seems that at least the last phase of overhead cover and reinforcing materials at Blaeberry may have been left in situ to rot away rather than being salvaged. Could it be that the trenches at Blaeberry were used as display pieces once the soldiers had gone off to war?

The days spent at Redmires gave me the final boost to finish the 2008 excavation report from Blaeberry Hill (I’ve not had it since 2008! Only since 2014…) and now I’m restructuring the report into an article I hope to submit for publication by the end of this year. I will look more closely at possible reasons for the site to be left open after training ceased.