Discovery of Practice Battlefield Launches Call Up to Volunteers

Remains of an entire practice battlefield, the size of nearly 17 football pitches, with two sets of opposing trench systems and a No Man's Land between, used for training troops before they were sent to the Front in the First World War, has been discovered on heathland in Gosport, Hampshire. The find marks the start of Home Front Legacy 1914-18, a project on which English Heritage and the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) are working together to record the physical remains of the war on home territory.

Overgrown and forgotten, this century-old site was lost to history until a few months ago when Rob Harper, Conservation Officer at Gosport Council, spotted what he recognised as trench systems on a 1950s aerial photograph and went to investigate.

Now, as part of the Home Front Legacy campaign, volunteers from the Armed Forces are working with the CBA and English Heritage to map and record the practice battlefield for posterity. (Some of these Servicemen and women have recently completed their own pre-deployment training for modern operations overseas.)

Rob Harper said: "I found myself walking along a ditch and realised it was part of an elaborate trench system, hidden for all these years by bracken and gorse. I looked around and there were trenches everywhere! It's Ministry of Defence land but open to the public. Local people picnic here and are aware of the lumps and bumps but their origin has been a mystery until now.

"Gosport was a departure point for thousands of soldiers setting off to the trenches of Europe many of whom may well have practised here. But we haven't yet found any records of who they were, what they did or what happened to them afterwards."

Speaking from the battlefield on Thursday 6 March Dan Snow, President of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), called for more volunteers to join up for the Home Front Legacy campaign. He said: "Our aim is to record and preserve vulnerable sites, buildings and structures - camps, drill halls, factories and observation posts for example, before they and the stories they bear witness to are lost forever. Our volunteers will be scouring the nation's towns, villages, countryside and beaches to track down local First World War places that are just not in the records. They'll upload observations on what they find to a specially designed app and their finds will appear on an online map to open up the impact of the war on our landscape for everyone."

Wayne Cocroft, English Heritage's First World War expert, said: "English Heritage is exploring old documents and aerial photographs, many of which haven't seen the light of day since put away after the war. We're identifying former drill halls, requisitioned factories and farm buildings, pill boxes, secret listening stations, acoustic mirrors, prisoner-of-war camps and gun emplacements - places that deserve to have the part they played in history made known.

"Buildings from Tudor, Georgian, Victorian times…these are all well documented. But the built history of the First World War in England is virtually a blank chapter. The Home Front Legacy 1914-18 campaign is about bringing together our national expertise and people's local knowledge to fill in the gaps and for the first time properly record the remains of the war that are still all around us today."

Maria Miller, Culture Secretary and the Government's lead on the First World War Centenary programme said: "The Home Front Legacy 1914-18 is a really good and worthwhile project. The First World War, and the part that Britain and the Commonwealth played in it, changed the course of history. Discovering, preserving and identifying for the public, sites and buildings from that era will help bring that part of our national history alive for generations to come.

"So I hope lots of people, young and old and from all over the country, will get involved. Local and family history groups, parish and county-based centenary projects, schools, young people, those interested in the part played by women or Commonwealth communities - there will be buildings and sites to be discovered that mean something to everyone."

A list of other First World War sites and buildings around the country that are being researched and recorded by English Heritage and the Council for British Archaeology include:

  • Curtis's and Harvey Explosive Works, Cliffe, Medway
  • Stowe Maries Airfield, Essex
  • Wrest Park, Bedfordshire
  • Rothbury Practice Trenches, North Yorkshire
  • Southam, Warwickshire, a rare survival of a First World War accommodation hut
  • Munitions Workers Housing (Royal Arsenal), Well Hall Estate, Eltham
  • First Blitz damage Lincoln’s Inn Chapel
  • Anti-aircraft sites - Acoustic mirror, Sunderland, Tyne & Wear
  • Pill Box at Spurn Point, East Riding, Yorkshire

For more details about the above sites, please download the document on the right hand side of the page.

Richard Osgood, MOD Archaeologist, said: "Browndown Training Area is a truly remarkable site, part of the history of Gosport and also that of the Armed Forces, so it's great that our Servicemen and women have been able to explore the trenches today and experience it first hand."

David Hopkins, Hampshire County Archaeologist, said: "It is well-known that troops were stationed at nearby Browndown Camp but to date no historical records have emerged noting the practice trenches. We need to use archaeological methods to investigate and increase our understanding of this site and the hugely important period in our history it illuminates."

How to Get Involved

Sign up on the Council for British Archaeology's Home Front Legacy website to access the online recording toolkit, guidance and resources including an app for recording sites in the field and a map and photo gallery of newly recorded sites.

The English Heritage website contains information about all kinds of buildings and sites associated with the First World War and describes other English Heritage projects taking place over the centenary period. 

There will also be updates on Twitter: @HistoricEngland and the Historic England blog: Heritage Calling.