Royal Armouries’ Visitor Experience team were tasked with the mission to eat, sleep and live like First World War soldiers and Front Line nurses within a trench, during the three-day Festival of Cycling at Harewood House as part of Le Grand Départ. Visitor Experience Officer, Lisa Power tells us how they got on…
With the beginning of the First World War Centenary commemorations just weeks away, Royal Armouries wanted to give the public a greater perspective on what life was like in the trenches, along with Scot, Mike and Gemma from our Visitor Experience Team. Our first task was to establish how our trench would look. There is the misconception by some that British trenches were “cavernous ravines” with plenty of head space for the bullets and grenades to whizz overhead. However, in reality, many trenches were only about five to six foot deep and this came as a result of a number of factors. A major one was the water table in the area. Digging deep could cause the trench to flood, so in many cases trenches were initially dug shallowly and built up with sand-bagging and clay. Another was the mentality of the British commanders; the objective was always to advance the line further. There was no point in creating a safe, comfortable haven for the soldier as it would be difficult to motivate them when the time came to push on.
Time and manpower dictated that when it came to digging a trench for this experiment we had to cheat by using a mechanical digger – the reality of hand digging with an entrenching tool was a laborious one. According to British Trench guidelines, it would have taken six hours for 450 men to dig 250 metres of trench. With the trench shored up with corrugated sheeting, and the sandbags and duck-boards laid, it was time to move in. Mike Broadley wore the uniform of a Lance Corporal from the Royal Fusiliers and Scot Hurst was a Corporal. Jemma Bulmer wore kit based on a front-line nurse called Elsie Knocker, an extraordinary woman who set up a dressing station for Belgian soldiers 100 yards from the front line at Ypres.
As soon as the team moved into their new home the heavens opened. The trench became filthy and morale diminished. The clothing acted as a poor barrier to any inclement weather, the absorbent wool became heavy and for the rest of the weekend some articles of clothing, such as the great coat, retained their dampness, even when the weather cleared up. Everything was covered in mud and dirt and again many of these items remained in that condition for the rest of our stay. It became very clear that firearms maintenance in these conditions was extremely challenging. Due to difficulties in keeping firearms in working order, it became clear to see why grenades were so widely used.
Obviously in conducting this experiment we did not have to experience some of the more acute hardships of trench life. These included constant noise of artillery fire, the lack of sanitary toilet facilities, the squalid filth, sapped morale, colleagues suffering from post-traumatic stress, and the constant fear of death or injury combined with a sense of utter hopelessness. All these factors combined to create a living hell for an entire generation.
The opportunity to be part of this experience transformed the written accounts of trench life into some kind of tangible reality for us. It helped us to reflect upon why we still commemorate the First World War and why it had such a profound effect upon those who went away to the carnage and those who remained behind.
Blogger: Lisa Power, Visitor Experience Officer
Royal Armouries is running a series of exhibitions, events, talks and seminars for the First World War Centenary across our three sites in Leeds, Fort Nelson and the Tower of London, visit the website for more information.