Pvt. Albert Morgan, 18, donned the khaki uniform of the 55th (West Lancashire) Infantry Division and headed to the trenches of the First World War’s Western Front.
My grandpa was one of almost six million Brits who served — more than 700,000 perished — mainly along a front line that by 1918 stretched from the North Sea coast of Belgium, south through France, to the Swiss border. They fought alongside the Canadian Expeditionary Force, in which 630,000 enlisted — mostly volunteers — and 234,000 were killed or wounded.
Pvt. Morgan lived to tell the tale, but like many of his comrades in arms, chose not to. The only evidence of his participation in what was dubbed the “War to end all wars” were the scars that marked where exploding shrapnel penetrated his torso. The lifelong lung ailments, brought on by chlorine gassing, also offered a permanent reminder.
His war records were among the almost four million destroyed in 1940 by the German bombing of the U.K. War Office, during the later prolonged conflict that made a mockery of the “no more war’ optimism of 1918.
I learned early that war conversation was verboten. It was frustrating for a youngster whose interest was piqued by stories of the more recent Second World War. And my curiosity always grew at this time of the year, when backyard firework displays celebrated the foiling of Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.
Grandpa would stay in the house, occasionally peering out from behind the drapes, supposedly because the cold could bring on a bronchitis attack. What horrors those loud bangs that made me whoop with joy must have conjured up in his shell-shocked mind. I guess it would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder.
As this ex-pat Brit prepared to reflect on the Armistice that came into force on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 100 years ago, my curiosity was piqued again. I read about a remarkable 18-year-old lad called Toby Dingle, who persuaded his dad to re-create the trenches of the Somme, in France, 215 kilometres away on the family farm in the English county of Kent. Hoping to get a better sense of what trench life was like for my grandpa, I headed to the village of Elham, near Canterbury (hawthornetrench.co.uk).
As the fresh-faced young Toby spoke enthusiastically about the Hawthorn(e) Trench Project, I imagined my conscripted grandpa slinging a Lee-Enfield Mk III rifle over his shoulder at exactly the same age as this young history buff.
“I was part of a living history group invited to Belgium where they had found the remains of three (First World War) soldiers at a roadside and wanted to give them a proper burial,” said Toby.
Returning home, a pal jokingly suggested Toby should dig a trench and invite people to see it as part of an educational program. By the time they had crossed the English Channel, for Toby it was no joke.
“I thought it would be a non-starter, but it wasn’t,” he said. “In the films, all you see is the fighting, but only a small amount of time was spent fighting. We want to show what it was like living in a trench.”
In stepped Andy Robertshaw, a former history teacher, military museum curator and author. The 61-year-old educator was also a consultant on Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of War Horse. Most recently, Robertshaw advised Lord of the Rings producer Peter Jackson, whose documentary, “They shall not grow old”, featuring colourized wartime film, was just released.
Robertshaw echoed Toby’s remarks: “A veteran once summarized his time in the trenches as 90 per cent bored stiff, nine per cent frozen stiff, and one per cent scared stiff! They spent five days each month in trenches before being relieved. It wasn’t always going “over the top,” as you often see in films and as depicted in the closing scenes of popular Rowan Atkinson television series Black Adder.
“I wanted to do daily life rather than combat, which was the experience for so many people’s relatives such as your grandfather.”
Robertshaw based the design on a British trench near Hawthorn Ridge (known as Hawthorne up until 1916). That historic battle location is marked by monuments now, but there are no trenches. “You have to visit the Kent countryside to see the real thing,” he said.
Since opening earlier this year, hundreds of school children have visited the trench system, which covers almost half a hectare, away from grazing livestock. A no-man’s land separates a German trench from the larger Allies’ trench. There are dugout sleeping quarters for 30, the officers’ being the most “luxurious,” with two beds and a wood stove.
It’s hard not to chuckle at the signage warning trench tenants to “Keep to the Trench in Daylight.” No laughing matter for our grandpas and great grandpas, though.
My imagination worked overtime as we toured the trench, but Robertshaw cautioned: “History really needs to be experienced, not imagined.”
And with that, he invited me to a 48-hour trench experience next year.
“You will get into uniform and have a boot camp-style introduction to the trench life of a Great War soldier.”
Just like my grandpa Morgan, it was a call-up I could not refuse.
Keith Morgan is a retired Postmedia journalist and author of the Holocaust biography, Ruta’s Closet. His forthcoming trench experience will feature in his next book. email@example.com
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