By James Somper
A history boffin has spent £8,000 building a full-sized WWI trench network in a field in Kent – and is inviting the public to live as soldiers there.
Andy Robertshaw, a historian and Great War expert, has spent 18 months building the British and German trenches at a farm near Canterbury with the help of a group of 10 volunteers.
The 61-year-old now hopes the massive one-acre network – which is complete with firing bays, an aid post, an engineer’s store, a dugout, kitchen and even a railway – can be a permanent exhibit which will teach people about the realities of trench life.
The dad-of-one now wants members of the public to live on the front line for 48 hours to experience the reality of life as a Tommy.
Former history teacher Andy said: “Our trench network shows what life was like 90 per cent of the time for World War One soldiers.
“They only spent five days at a time in trenches like mine before swapping with other soldiers – it wasn’t always going ‘over the top’ like you see in films.
“My ambition is for it to become a permanent site for people who can’t go to France and Belgium to go to.
“There are no well-constructed trenches in the UK, France and Belgium at all really, so we hope that this can fill the void.
“We’re going to launch a 48-hour trench experience in the autumn, where people can arrive, get into uniform and have a ‘bootcamp’ style introduction in the experience of a Great War solider.
“They’d then go into a night-time routine of working, resting and guarding the trench before having an inspection and breakfast the following morning. It’d be an introduction to life in a trench done in real time.”
Andy – who has spent decades researching the conflict – based the design of his ‘Hawthorne Trench’ on an original British trench which was near to Hawthorne Ridge, a fortified German position which was spectacularly blown up by British tunnellers in July 1916.
The British trench, which spans a staggering 60 metres and is 200 metres deep, can sleep up to 30 people while the German trench, which is smaller, can sleep only 10.
It’s the third trench that the former curator of the Royal Logistic Corps Museum has built in his lifetime.
Andy said: “I’ve built three previous trenches, and this is by far the biggest and the best.
“I always wanted to have a really good replica trench.
“I wanted to do day-to-day life rather than combat to show the mundane, humdrum normality that was the experience for so many people’s great grandfathers and other relatives.”
Andy estimates he has spent nearly £8,000 on the project.
A stickler for detail, the historian led the building of the trench using maps and designs from the time.
Andy said: “The design is based on the Marlborough Street trench which faced Hawthorne Ridge.
“We’ve ensured that the trench has been dug to the correct depth and size based on original documents.
“The geology of where we are in Kent is very similar to that of the Somme.
“The geology here and in the Somme is largely chalk-based, with a thin layer of top soil.”
Andy said the project has limitless possibilities, as he is always thinking of new features to add to the trench network.
He said he is keen to emphasise that the trench is not a war memorial to the soldiers who died in “the war to end all wars” but is instead, a memorial of how they lived and the reality of life for them.
Andy said the trench is a deeply personal project for him, as his grandfather, John Andrew Robertshaw of the East Yorkshire Regiment, fought in the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Arras.
He said: “I don’t think it’ll ever finish. It’ll always be a work in progress.
“It’s not a memorial to those who fell, as this field in Kent was not a battlefield, but it’s a memorial to the experience of living in a trench.
“It puts people in the boots of those who lived in places like this.
“My grandfather was a veteran, and when I asked him why he volunteered he said he did it so he could eventually take his uniform off and live in peace and freedom.
“Next year in July we’re hosting an event to remember those soldiers who came home. They’re the forgotten army.”