World War I battlefield model excavation on Cannock Chase gives new insight into famous Battle of Messines
By Jonathan Mitchell
CANNOCK CHASE, Staffordshire, UK — 6th October, 2013 — JUST under a century ago, this now quiet, leafy, beauty spot in south Staffordshire was a hive of military activity. For the staff officers of the the newly-formed New Zealand Rifle Brigade at Brocton Camp, their small, tennis court sized battlefield map outside their headquarters was a great source of pride. And not without reason…For it depicts one of the most awesome and decisive confrontations of World War I, the Battle of Messines, in which they fought with great valour.
Some 95 years later, a similar pride infuses the hearts of Staffordshire County Council’s archaeological department – who located the giant model in September. After some weeks of careful excavation, the extensive remnants of the model of the battlefield of Messines are now fully excavated and have been laser scanned to create a 3D computer model of the battlefield at Messines as it appeared in the spring of 1917.
“This is an excellent survival and is unique,” says Stephen Dean, the Principal Archaeologist from Staffordshire County Council’s Archaeology Department. His team of archaeologists have spent the past four weeks or so carefully excavating the model, which was rendered in concrete. What they have uncovered has survived the ravages of ten decades…The enemy of the archaeologists being the roots of trees and brambles, frost, damp and rabbits – a warren has destroyed a small part of the site.
Nevertheless, the surviving parts of the battlefield model are still an extraordinary find and Mr Dean says they will yield a whole host of fascinating insights into The Great War – the centenary of which begins in 2014.
“It tells us potentially what the trenches actually looked like,” Mr Dean says. Adding that very little is known from current sources about secondary trench systems. “It appears the New Zealand Rifle Brigade depicted all primary and secondary trenches in detail, whereas on the army maps only the primary trenches are drawn in detail,” he adds.
Made at a scale of roughly 1:50 on the horizontal and 1:25 on the vertical (to accentuate the ridge), the detail in the model is extraordinary. It is aligned perfectly to the compass and in total measures 35 x 40 metres. Tiny pebbles in neat lines show the contours of the Messines Ridge.
Built in 1918 by officers of the 5th Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade (NZRB) with the aid of German prisoners of war, it depicts all the German primary and secondary defensive trenches, roads, railways (one in a trench), artillery and machine gun emplacements, the British Army front lines in the NZRB sector and the – mostly ruined – town of Messines. Archaeologists are still puzzling over the details of the model, but one interesting detail they have discovered is a building in the town shows a fortified cellar!
“The buildings are [depicted as] damaged…They were portrayed on the model as shelled buildings in the town and the farming landscape,” Mr Dean says adding that due to this, the model also provides a good insight into the war’s impact on civilians in towns on the Western Front. “It is the closest we will get seeing a shattered town during the conflict.”
Large scale battlefield models were widely used by the General Staff of the British Army in World War I and two similar models of the Messines Ridge were built at regional headquarters in Flanders before the Battle of Messines in June 1917.
However, the example discovered at Cannock Chase is the only one that still exists, as the ones made in Belgium and France were made of compacted earth and have since ceased to exist.
The model may also show where some British Army regiments were deployed in the network of trenches. “There may be part of trenches of the Cheshires and the Worcesters…But we are not entirely sure at the moment,” Mr Dean said.
Now the site has been fully recorded by the archaeological team, it will be covered with a root-proof barrier, covered in sand and then covered in a rabbit-proof barrier, before the spoil is returned and the site is allowed to blend back in with the heathland common to Cannock Chase.
A key battle of World War I, the Battle of Messines spectacularly began at 3AM on the morning of the 7th June, 1917 with nineteen huge explosions from large mines planted in tunnels underneath the German front lines, killing thousands in a single moment. The NZRB were ordered to take Messines and one Lance Corporal, Sam Frickleton, was awarded the Victoria Cross for destroying two machine gun nests near the Institution Royale on the outskirts of the town. Total German casualties were approximately 26,000 versus 20,000 British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealanders.
The victory on the Messines ridge paved the way for larger battles at Ypres and Passchendaele. The survivors of the 5th Battalion of the NZRB returned to their base at Brocton Camp on Cannock Chase in 1918 and built the model ostensibly for training. Stephen Dean says it would have been used to explain tactics to new officers and non-commissioned officers and some soldiers heading out to the Western Front. These models he says had advantages over the paper maps, which were full of codes and symbols only certain officers understood.
From his work on the dig, he is convinced that this extraordinary model had a deeper significance for the officers and men of the NZRB. “It is more than just a training model…It is also a commemoration of the sacrifice of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade on the Messines Ridge,” he says. -ends-
Note on this story: Despite a lot of interest before I did the 200 mile round trip to cover, it…Not one UK national newspaper ran this story or any of the pictures…Sadly, the following Monday…Some nonsense about Downton Abbey was of course, of much greater importance!