Before shipping out to fight on the frontlines of WWI, many British soldiers underwent rigorous training at Larkhill, a military camp in Wiltshire, England. Now, Maev Kennedy reports for The Guardian, archaeologists recently uncovered an expansive network of tunnels and trenches at the camp, where soldiers waged mock battles, burned through cigarettes and snacked on toffee.
The discovery was made during an ongoing construction project to build hundreds of new homes at Larkhill. Archaeologists found a trove of personal items within the trenches and tunnels: pipes, cigarette tins, meat paste, a jar of Canadian cheese, a tin of Australian toffee. There were scorch marks in places where soldiers had prepared food. A bucket appeared to have been used as a brazier for hot coals, presumably to warm the soldiers during cold English nights.
Some of the discoveries were more explosive in nature. “[W]e found over 200 grenades in the tunnel and 50 percent of them proved to be still live,” Si Cleggett of Wessex Archaeology, which was involved in the excavation, tells Kennedy. “We had to work side by side with experts in dealing with live ordnance, or it could have got very tricky.”
Soldiers likely spent weeks at a time in the mock battlefield to prepare for grueling conditions in Belgium and France. “The First World War is famous for its miles of trenches,” Wessex Archaeology says in a statement. “Trench systems also included dug-outs − underground chambers used as troop shelters, headquarters, medical posts and stores.”
Opposing armies would also use trench systems to dig under no-man’s land until they reached enemy trenches, where they would deposit large explosive charges. “Both sides played cat and mouse, digging towards each other and trying to stop the enemy from placing their explosives,” the statement explains.
The landscape at Larkhill mimicked this scenario: archaeologists found opposing dug outs running into a “no-man’s land,” along with listening posts, where soldiers-in-training would use stethoscopes to listen for “enemy” activity.
Within this elaborate system of tunnels and trenches, researchers discovered more than 100 pieces of graffiti, reports the BBC. Soldiers scrawled their names onto chalk walls, and some of these signatures have been matched to military service records. One soldier who trained at the site would become a deserter. Another was the war hero Private Lawrence Carthage Weathers, who fought furiously during a 1918 battle in France. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Weathers hurled grenades into enemy trenches and captured 180 German soldiers. He was killed in battle less than a month later, never knowing that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross.
On top of these discoveries, the excavation unearthed evidence of an ancient human presence at Larkhill, which is located two miles from Stonehenge. As Kennedy reports in The Guardian, archaeologists working in the area discovered a henge monument, Iron Age round huts, a pottery beaker, an ancient enclosure, and the bones of three children who died about 4,000 years ago.
There were also some rather surprising finds from the period after the First World War: a 1950s motorbike and a red, 1930s sports car. It isn’t entirely clear how they got there, but the vehicles have been logged and stored away, along with other artifacts from this remarkable site.