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Edinburgh First World War trench survey begins

Archaeologist Beth Spence surveys the trenches at Dreghorn Woods. Picture: Greg Macvean

Archaeologist Beth Spence surveys the trenches at Dreghorn Woods. Picture: Greg Macvean

  • by DAWN MORRISON
 

WORLD renowned experts have begun a major survey aimed at unlocking the secrets of the Capital’s First World War trenches.

The network of trenches at Dreghorn Woods, Colinton, which will cost an estimated £10,000 to save, were almost forgotten and had been left to become overgrown by trees. In December, Edinburgh City Council awarded £3500 to enable survey work to take place following months of campaigning by writer and historian Lynne Gladstone-Millar and the Evening News, calling for the trenches to be preserved.

And yesterday, experts in military archaeology arrived to assess the significance of the practice trenches, using state-of-the-art surveying systems and GPS equipment.

The team – made up of archaeologists from the MoD’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO), the council and specialists from the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Battlefield Archaeology – will chart the route and condition of the trenches before making recommendations for future management of the site.

The 16th Battalion The Royal Scots dug the trenches in Colinton and Dreghorn – which was open countryside at the time – before they made their way to France.

With trench design rapidly progressing throughout the First World War, experts will also be hoping the exciting study will lay bare the secrets of trench design and any methods used to keep up with the initially superior trench-building German forces.

The survey follows a campaign to save the trenches led by Mrs Gladstone-Millar, whose father, William Ewart Gladstone-Millar, was trained in the trenches before he was sent to the Battle of the Somme.

DIO environmental sdviser Phil Abramson said: “Hopefully, the survey will reveal just what sort of warfare was being practised here.

“We do not know anything about the extent of the trenches, what condition they are in, or the type of trenches they are.

“Dreghorn Trenches is a monument of national significance.

“The results of this survey will be vital in helping us plan how best to manage the future of this important piece of military heritage.”

Mr Abramson added he could envisage the site being used educationally, along the lines of a woodland walk with a leaflets and an information panel. Investigations will take four days to complete and a comprehensive report will be available to DIO in March.

This will allow DIO’s historic advisers to work with a range of partners, including Edinburgh City Council, to begin developing a range of options about how the site might be managed in the future.

Colonel Philip Bates, Commander Edinburgh Garrison, said: “I am very happy that work is now starting on this project. This first stage will be to establish exactly what is there and what condition it is in.

“Once we have that information we will, with our partners in Edinburgh City Council and the DIO, decide what we are going to do in terms of preservation and use of these historically important trench systems.

“This is an important project. There is the clear military historic connection, but it is probably even more important in terms of social history, since WWI is probably the first major conflict to have such a profound effect on the home-based civilian population as well as the service personnel.

“This would be important at any time, but it is especially relevant now, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI in 2014.

“In terms of currency, I also believe this project is important to us here and now. Working with our local authority partners, it is a tangible manifestation of the UK Armed Forces Covenant and our more local Community Covenant, through which we are working to ensure enduring and positive links between our service personnel, their families and the communities in which we live.”

Survey work on the site will be led by the city council’s archaeologist, John Lawson, and Dr Tony Pollard and Dr Iain Banks from the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology. City culture and sport Ccnvener Richard Lewis said: “The council has a duty to preserve Edinburgh’s rich cultural heritage and I am delighted that we have identified funding to take this fantastic project forward.”

Realistic training experience

The practice trenches were dug to train the troops in all forms of trench warfare they could expect to tackle on the Western Front – so they had to provide a realistic training experience.

Trenches would not have been straight as this would have enabled bullets and shrapnel to travel long distances along the interior, leading to potentially high casualties.

Instead, the trenches were either crenelated or zig-zag to restrict the distance that bullets and shrapnel would travel and protect the men inside.

There are several examples of well-preserved practice trenches on MoD land, including examples on the Castlelaw training area just to the south of Dreghorn Barracks.

However one of the best preserved examples of training trenches is on the Barry Buddon training area near Dundee. This shows the two different trench designs: zig-zag and crenelated.

Another common feature of trenches were underground bunkers or dug-outs, which offered soldiers a greater degree of protection from bombardment. It is possible such structures were dug at Dreghorn, and the experts will be looking for any evidence to support that theory.

 

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