Between the 16th and 29th July 2019 members of the public, including families and students from the University of Bradford undertook a community-based excavation of a little know First World War practice trench located in Long Wood, Copley, West Yorkshire.
The investigation forms part of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Newgound Together, Yorkshire Water and Green Bank Trust funded Celebrating Our Woodland Heritage project managed by Pennine Prospects. The site was first brought to our attention in February 2018 during the archaeological survey of just 1 of the 38 woodlands investigated by volunteers between 2017 and 2019.
There are 2 stretches of practice trench surviving as earthworks within Long Wood. Both monuments are of a traditional ‘Greek-Key’ pattern, synonymous with those found on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. As well as the trench itself, earthwork remains include a low, broad bank (parapet) to the front of the firebays and traverses; as well as a possible parados (bank of earth) to the rear.
A practice trench is exactly that. They were constructed by soldiers as part of their training so that they learn general procedures of trench construction, how to use the tools available, and once complete, how to live and work in the trenches. The benefits of practice trench construction were also the improving of fitness levels, along with the enhancing of bonds amongst the soldiers themselves.
The aim of the investigation was to answer three simple questions:
1. What did the trench look like when first constructed?
2. How long was it in use?
3. Who constructed it?
What did the trench look like when first constructed?
The investigated practice trench measures up to 35 metres long and in plan supported fire bays connected by traverses in the classic Greek Key pattern. No communication trenches or saps were associated with the single stretch of trench.
Excavation led by volunteers found evidence that when complete (at least in the case of the fire bays and parapet) ahead of the trench (on the downslope side) there was some attempt at constructing a barbed wire obstacle; as indicated by fragments of twisted iron at regular intervals.
The parapet itself was constructed by redepositing the extracted clay and sand subsoils from the trench cut. It was interesting to note the original ground surface during the excavation, represented as a dark organic rich layer preserved beneath the parapet material and above the sandy silt subsoil.
On completion the trench measured up to 1.70m deep and included a firing step on its southern edge to allow access to view over the parapet. No evidence for a retaining wall along the sides of the trench, as well as trench boards on the foot of the trench was observed.
The traverses, which served to link the fire bays, were not completed to the same scale as the fire bays. Instead the trench is significantly shallower (0.50 – 0.70m deep) here, and may indicate early abandonment of the site rather than a deliberate action.
How long was it in use?
By the end of the archaeological investigation, it is thought the practice trench was not in use for anything longer than two weeks, but most likely 1 week. The trench system also doesn’t appear to have been completed, with the excavated traverse trench being considerably shallower than the investigated fire bay.
The reason the trench appears to have had only a short life span, is that it was largely filled in in one episode using large blocks of gritstone. Below this fill layer was the bottom of the trench. After the dumping of stone at the foot of the trench, it appears to have been left to fill up naturally.
Who constructed it?
Unfortunately we were unable to determine during the course of the excavation who constructed the trench systems in Long Wood. It was hoped we might find a button or cap badge for example, but in this we were unsuccessful. The assumption is that the trenches were constructed by members of the 2nd Battalion The Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment).
If you know anything of the site, I would love to hear from you
I would like to finish by thanking all of the volunteers who helped make this excavation such a successful and fun experience. I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did.