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Evidence of a nation preparing for war revealed on Cannock Chase

They may not have contained the terrible mud and ever-present rats that were the twin torments of a Tommy’s life in the trenches, but otherwise a remarkably exact First World War training facility has been revealed decades after it disappeared.

The mocked up front line even had hand-dug shell holes in the pretend no-man’s land between the ‘friendly’ and ‘enemy’ trenches on Cannock Chase.

The long-forgotten earthworks are just part of the practice trenches, assault courses, weapons pits and firing ranges revealed by new technology.

Amongst the most impressive and extensive remains, are the two First World War training camps of Brocton and Rugeley where over 500,000 men were trained for the trenches.

Although contemporary plans of the camps do exist, the earthwork features were not marked, and they rarely appear on period photographs.

The largest training site was located at the southern end of the Sherbrook Valley, between the two camps. Covering an area of over 40 hectares, practice trenches were constructed on either side of a dry valley to represent a battle-front of both allied and enemy lines. This comprised fire trenches, support and communication trenches, as well as hand-dug ‘shell-holes’.

At Brocton alone there were at least 10 networks of trenches arranged in rows, thought to be constructed as assault courses.  Dozens more weapons pits and isolated sections of practice trench that stretch across Coppice Hill and Brocton Field were also revealed.

Gill Heath, Staffordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Communities who is leading on the county’s Great War Commemorations said:

“Cannock Chase is a well-loved Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but also has some of the best preserved Great War archaeology in the country.

“While we knew about the training camps, these additional discoveries really bring to life the scale of the training that went on the Chase readying the soldiers for the real theatre of war.  And, the beauty of this project is that by using new technology, we have been able to make the discoveries without digging up and damaging any part of it. It’s a great step towards protecting the Chase’s natural splendour and preserving its history for the future.”

The use of LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology attached to an aircraft has allowed this unique opportunity to scan the area and see beneath much of the vegetation in an area which is now mostly defined by woodland and heath.

Dave Knight, Aerial and Mapping Investigator at Historic England said:

The aerial survey that Historic England has done for the Cannock Chase Through Time project has helped reveal a broad archaeological landscape of great historic depth, allowing us a better understanding and appreciation of the historic environment.

“It has revealed thousands of features, most notably the remains of hundreds of First World War hut bases and dozens of military training sites. Once a Royal Forest to Plantagenet Kings, the Chase went through many changes to become the training ground of thousands of soldiers in the First World War. It has been particularly satisfying to train and work closely with volunteers, who have imparted as much knowledge on ourselves, as we have given back.”

Staffordshire County Council worked with Historic England and a team of volunteers on the project following a £96k grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.