Unearthed

Over the past few weeks a remarkable archeological project as been underway near Brocton, on Cannock Chase. When I first heard about it, I was a little sceptical, as although I had known about the existence of the Messines Model Village for a couple of years, I had grave doubts that any of it still remained.

How wrong I was. Over the course of what has been an astounding dig, mainly performed by volunteers, the model has revealed itself.

Readers who follow the blog closely will know that contributor David Evans has a great knowledge of, and interest in the history of the Great War, and has been up to Brocton Field to find out about this wonderful piece of history.

The model will be reburied very soon, I believe, so if you want to see it, get up there quick. It’s up off the Chase Road, near the Glacial Boulder. To get there, drive up past the Pye Green radio tower, past Springslade Lodge and the war cemeteries and turn off right onto Chase Road.

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The model as it looked before abandonment at the end of the Great War. Image from Staffordshire Archives.

Hi Bob

I wonder if your readers have been able to visit the archeological dig that has been ongoing at the site of the First World War New Zealander’s Army camp in Cannock Chase? This amazing scale model of the area surrounding the village of Messines in Belgium was constructed in the Army camp itself by German Prisoners of War, and was used to familiarise the soldiers with the terrain, German trenches, and lines of barbed wire that they would face in the major offensive of the summer of 1917.

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I had known that such a large battlefield model had been built and used during the conflict, but thought it had been lost forever and destroyed when the Army Camp had been demolished after the end of the war. Purely by chance a few days ago, I came across the dig on Brocton Field, and was able to talk to some of the team of archeologists who had worked so hard to reveal this scale model.

I have visited the village of Messines on many occasions in the last thirty years or so, and could recognise the features in the model that had been painstakingly unearthed. The nearby beck in the shallow valley; the road which lead from Ploegsteert to the South; the village buildings standing high on the ridge.

The official records of that major offensive make grim and terrifying reading, and the model could not give an accurate warning of the final slope of the defenses or the hidden machine-gun posts.

As we know, the battlefield was a hellish place for all the combatants and even nowadays this is a cold, desolate corner of Belgium. Now all is at peace, with the fields returned to agriculture, the road to the village open and wide, lush hop fields by the roadside all the way from Ploegsteert woods, and the little beck flowing steadily as it always did. To the west the line of trees is there again, the only signs of this awful battle being remains of the huge craters, now filled with water.

Unexploded ordnance is still being unearthed, after nearly a century this land is still dangerous in places.

There is now a Peace Park on the edge of the village, a tranquil space with a tall, slender Irish tower. From here it is a gentle stroll around the slopes to the new Zealand Military cemetery, inside the last line of defenses.

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Messines Ridge from Hill 63 by war artist George Edmund Butler. Image from Wikimedia Commons/New Zealand National Archives.

The model in the former New Zealand Army Camp, high up on the windswept Cannock Chase, is a sight which brings a coldness and an unexpected shiver to the spine, and yes, a sadness and anger too at the human conflict and waste of life it embodies.

This is a wonderful and unusual archeological project, soon to be re-buried when the dig ends on Monday.

To the entire team of archeologists, helpers and other volunteers who have toiled so hard to bring this piece of history to our eyes, I salute you all. A valuable and amazing thing.

Kind regards

David

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Brocton Field keeps its secrets well. This is a wide, beautiful, cinematic landscape; like Messines itself, once echoing to the sounds of soldiers, but now at peace.

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7 Responses to Unearthed

  1. David Oakley says:

    What a brilliant piece ! Big thank you to Bob and David for this interesting and gripping insight into what was one of the ultimately decisive battles of World War One, helping to break the stalemate along the western front. Many thousands were killed and incapacitated by the gas attacks on Ploegsteert wood during the preparation for the assault and 7000 Germans soldiers were killed in the explosion of the mines which were laid a hundred feet below the lines, without counting the casualties in the resultant battle, Events like this are an important part of our history and I was pleased to see that children and Learning Platforms are involved to disseminate this information.Future Cenotaph ceremonies would be rather pointless if the heroism and self-sacrifice were all forgotten in the mists of time, so grateful thanks must be extended to all who made the Cannock Chase project possible, not forgetting our own blog historian, David Evans, who brought this very interesting archeological dig, to our attention..

  2. Pedro says:

    Strange how the model disappeared?

    28th August 1936…Lichfield Mercury…

    Gift to Cannock Chase from New Zealand.

    Col R St. J Beere, the senior Rifle Brigade officer in New Zealand ensign, and members of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade Reunion Committee are to present a pennant bearing the Brigade’s name and crest, to be flown over the Messines sector scale model near Brocton on Cannock Chase in commemoration of their stay there in the camp during the war.

    Notification has been received to this effect by the North Staffs Branch of the Grenadier Guards Comrades Association through Captain AGW Heber-Percy, the Branch President, who is Aide-de-camp to the Governer General of New Zealand.

    The flags are to be sent to the British Empire Service League with the request that the Earl of Liverpool, the founder of the Brigade, should hoist them, if possible, on the Chase on October 10th, the anniversary of the departure of the first and second battalions from New Zealand in 1915

  3. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    Many thanks for this excellent presentation. raw notes transformed into quality production….most appreciated
    Kind regards
    David

  4. Richard Pursehouse says:

    Hello,

    I thought I would contact you concerning the Messines model so that you have a more accurate picture of the six years it has taken to get the model excavated.

    Myself and friend Lee Dent have been in a few articles in various newspapers (check out Birmingham Mail article by Andy Richardson). See link

    http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/local-news/battle-messines-dig-begins-uncover-5911767

    It was my dog Parker who “rediscovered” the area, and …..well, read the article.

    I would suggest you underplay the ‘Comms’ emphasis about German POWs building the model (Geneva Convention etc etc) – this came up because we unearthed the only photo of the model being constructed (see article) which shows a couple of POWs doing a bit of labouring in bottom left of the photo. I noticed you have – correctly – stated the size of the model (ask Marion at Cannock E and S office who told her it was the size of 5 tennis courts, whereas Comms have continued to state it was ONE tennis court…. – yes the ‘correct’ size came from us). As a point, the church wasn’t found on the model as it ended up in the garden of a Brocton resident; the Council were repeatedly asked in the 1990s to take it away for safe keeping but they never did. You mention the roads represented by pebbles, as were the contour lines (single row of pebbles) – did you know that the field boundaries (on a trench map this would mean ditches too) were represented by similar rows of pebbles – but on their edges?

    The Chase Project invited Lieutenant Colonel Mike Beale from the New Zealand High Commission up to the excavation. Mike is the third military attache we have kept updated on events since 2008, and his two predecessors have also accepted our invitation to come up to the area in the last four years. Mike, in full dress uniform placed a wreath on part of the model film of his speech to the volunteers begins with his thanking Lee and myself.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ah8U3VrlxXA&feature=c4-overview&list=UUfZZx8dvtICwbKVFWLdMX8A

    We have some great photos of the wreath on the model, as well as of Mike with the wreath. We also have some great photos of the model – just ask if you want any to use.

    Mike Beale liaised with the County Archaeologist Stephen Dean to have the previous headstone of Freda the NZRB mascot (a harlequin Great Dane, and NOT a dalmation!) sent to the National Army Museum in New Zealand, so that it could be with the collar of Freda there. During his visit here on Spetember 17th, Mike telephoned Steven Reyneert at Messines Council in Belgium to find out exactly where NZRB soldier Sam Frickleton won his Victoria Cross. Between the two of them they found the exact corner of the ‘building’ on the model (I can send a photo?).

    Yesterday Lee and myself (and Parker) met up again with Jules Hudson, filming for the BBC Countryfile programme (out in November) – we had been invited by Stephen Dean in May to contribute to a BBC Radio 3 programme on the Chase Camps

    Although No Man’s Land are a registered charity, to be fair they would probably prefer the more accurate description “Battlefield Archaeologists”. Stephen Dean asked Lee and myself to assist as we have the BEST research, photographs and aerial photographs on the model – including one article from the Express and Star newspaper from 1936 showing a trench that is on the model but not on trench maps – proof aerial photographs were used to construct the Chase version (see copy ‘Pitman cropped’ attached from 1932) of Messines. It was also our research (via a reference found by Dolores) that found out the name of the officer who ordered the model to be built – Lt Colonel J. G. Roache (see B at War article we wrote for the September issue)

    Our research has included many, many hours at the National Archives – where we unearthed the scale of the model being the same as that of one (of the three) terrain models built PRIOR to the battle – 1/50 horizontal and 1/25 vertical (to exaggerate the height to aid the training). Our research was used on the dig, as we had the only photos larger than A4 size (those of No Man’s Land) – some were A2 size, which helped at crucial times and avoided potential problems as well as contributed to analising/ interpreting what was being uncovered.

    As well as the Britain at War article, we have written articles for Australian and New Zealand newspapers, as well as the Western Front Magazine (I can send you a copy?) – see below

    http://www.odt.co.nz/news/your-news/274985/ww1-messines-model-excavation-england-update

    The connection with Otago is twofold – the regiment “leapfrogged” through the NZRB taken area of the town of Messines (actually, Messine sis the smallest city in Belgium!) and helped thwart the German counter attacks. The regimental funds of the NZRB when they left Brocton were used to provide a bursary for General Harry Townshend Fulton, who had led one of the three NZRB battalions at Messines. Fulton did not come to Brocton, but his popularity is obvious from the bursary – at Otago Boys High School. There is a brass plaque at the school in his name (we have a photo) and the school have been receiving regular updates about the excavation.

    In case you might be interested the model does cover a secton of the area captured by Australian troops (on the right) as well as a small section at the top of the model (see where the tree stumps are in your article? – That would be Sloping Roof Farm on the map) that was captured by the British 25th Division (which was part of the II ANZAC Corps sector of the front. So what? Well, the 25th Division consisted men from the Cheshire Regt and the Worcester Regt, who after the initial attack were ‘leapfrogged’ by men of the South Staffordshire Regt. So a truly “international” model.

    I mentioned the archivist at the NZ National Army Museum, whose name is Dolores Ho. When The Chase project contacted her, she was able to unearth four never seen before photogrpahs of the model in the archives. Suince then she has privately funded a visit to here, and was asked to place the Western Front Association wreath at the Cannock Anzac ceremony. The ceremony has taken place evry year on Cannock Chase since 1919 and is the largest outside of Australia and New Zealand. Dolores sent over a hand-crafted flax cross (indiginous to NZ) combined with their version of our poppy for the 2008 Anzac ceremony here and we placed them on the 73 NZ graves here – the first place IN THE WORLD this happened (see http://www.dolorescrossproject.org).

    Thanks to our articles in NZ Otago newspaper, Dolores was interviewed about the excavation etc (see link)

    http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/player/2571474

    Our involvement with Dolores has been humbling and we are very, very proud that our determination those brave men who came from so far away would never be forgotten makes us proud to be involved. Over 3,000 NZ graves in GB, Ireland as such disparate countries as Canada, Italy and Sweden have had a DCP cross/ poppy placed on them and photographed for their relatives in NZ.

    Ultimately the “unsung” heroes of the excavation were the volunteers who came to the “Community Dig” – the first of its kind attempted by the County Council. It is they and they alone that deserve the accolides for the success. Oh, and Parker a.k.a Trenchfinder! He has visited the site several times and made lots of friends – well, wagged his tail and sneaked several biscuits…..

    The Chase Project were privileged to be invited to help/ contribute to the excavation by Stephen Dean the County Archaeologist, who has had to juggle his time between the excavation and the HS2 impact on the area (but that’s another story).

    We have some excellent stories about the NZ time at Brocton – for example the flag exchange ceremony between the NZRB and the town of Stafford – lots of photos – when the NZRB left in May 1919. And then there is the Stafford Perpetual Musketry Challenge Shield presented to the NZRB and still competed for today – we have photos. Also we are well advanced with research on the German POW camp at Brocton Coppice (see Kirsten Rawlin’s DPS on the subject in E and Star). We have had an article published in The Sentinel on the WW1 Tank Bank they had in 1918 (copy available on request)

    Our next project – to ensure the Council’s vaguely-worded indication that the Messines model will be recreated actually happens. Some people said we would never get the model uncovered, the next stage can, and will, happen. Watch this space!

    Oh and if you want photos of the covering over of the model, we have plenty.

    Hope this email wasn’t too boring!

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