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Killing Time: Archaeology and the First World War

Killing Time: Archaeology and the First World War

by Nicholas Saunders

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The passage of time has all but extinguished any living memory of the Great War of 1914-1918 but the experiences of those who fought in the trenches of the Somme and Flanders have since become epic history and the stuff of legend. Today, hardly a month passes without some dramatic and sometimes tragic discovery being made along the old killing fields of the Western


The passage of time has all but extinguished any living memory of the Great War of 1914-1918 but the experiences of those who fought in the trenches of the Somme and Flanders have since become epic history and the stuff of legend. Today, hardly a month passes without some dramatic and sometimes tragic discovery being made along the old killing fields of the Western Front. Graves of British soldiers buried during battle - still lying in rows seemingly arm in arm or found crouching at the entrance to a dugout; whole 'underground cities' of trenches, dugouts and shelters have been preserved in the mud; field hospitals carved out of the chalk country of the Somme marked with graffiti; unexploded bombs and gas canisters - all of tehse are the poignant and sometimes deadly legacies fo a war we can never forget. Killing Time digs beneath the surface of war to uncover the living reality left behind. Archaeologist and anthropologist Nicholas J Saunders brings together a wealth of discoveries in family photographs, diaries, souvenirs and in the trenches to offer fresh insights into the human dimension of warfare in the contemporary past.

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Killing Time

Archaeology and the First World War

By Nicholas J. Saunders

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Nicholas J. Saunders
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7618-6


Excavating Memories: Great War Archaeology

The passage of time has all but extinguished any living memory of the Great War of 1914-1918, but the experiences of those who fought in the trenches of the Somme in northern France, and around the town of Ypres in Belgian Flanders, have since become epic history and the stuff of legend.

Today, hardly a month passes without some dramatic and often poignant discovery along the old killing fields of the Western Front in France and Belgium. Evocative burials of British, French or German soldiers buried during battle and then forgotten – lying in rows seemingly arm in arm, interred in a makeshift shell-crater grave, or found still crouching after eighty-five years at the entrance to a dugout. Whole 'underground cities' of trenches, dugouts, galleries and shelters lie preserved beneath the mud of Flanders – sometimes with newspapers, blankets and socks scattered where they were left. Underground field hospitals carved into the chalk country of Artois and Picardy in France also survive, as do hundreds of kilometres of tunnels scratched with graffiti by long-dead hands. Most threatening of all, countless tons of volatile bombs and gas canisters still wait for a chance to explode. Almost a century after the war ended, on 11 November 1918, there is an annual loss of life caused by this deadly legacy of the 'war to end all wars'.

The living reality of the First World War today belongs increasingly to archaeology. When the last old soldier passes away, anything new about the war will, almost by definition, belong in the realm of the archaeologist. Yet, while there are innumerable books on the military history of the war, its battles, its generals, and its cultural and economic legacies, there is not a single book on the modern scientific archaeology of the world's first industrialised global conflict.

This book, unique today, but surely not for long, brings together for the first time widely scattered archaeological discoveries of the First World War (many not published in English), and offers new insights into the human dimension of the conflict. It shows how the archaeology of the war is a new kind of archaeology – one that includes not only the excavation of battlefields, but also its personal and emotional dimensions – a social archaeology that excavates people's lives, and that can take place in their own homes, museums, car-boot sales, on the Internet, and in public and private collections of war memorabilia.

Unlike other kinds of archaeology, Great War archaeology connects directly to virtually every family in Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany and Austria, as well as to hundreds of thousands of others around the world, whose great-grandfathers and great-uncles fought in the trenches of the Western Front and beyond. Countless families preserve photographs, diaries and souvenirs of the First World War – objects as eloquent as anything found on the battlefields today – and all speak of ordinary men living extraordinary lives in momentous times.

During the past thirty years, archaeology has changed beyond all recognition. Today, archaeologists are concerned as much with what is called the 'contemporary past' as with deep prehistory or the worlds of classical antiquity. The archaeology of conflict, much influenced by anthropology, offers unique perspectives on the recent past by investigating the physical remains of everyday life – of battles won and lost, of national tragedy and individual struggle. Modern archaeology yields surprising personal and often poignant insights into people's lives over the past hundred years as well as in ancient times.

The archaeology of the First World War is the newest of these archaeologies of the contemporary or recent past. It tells a different story of the war from unexpected points of view, and shows how we create the past we desire. It is also a fast-developing subject, and one that is spearheading the advance to a greater goal – the archaeology of all twentieth-century conflict. The picture that archaeology reveals of war illustrates what it means to be human in that most fundamental and ironic invention of modern civilisation – industrialised conflict.

Archaeology and the First World War

The birth and development of a modern archaeology of the First World War is a curiously tangled affair, lasting almost a century, and, appropriately, not without its own internal conflicts and rivalries. Here, four notional phases are identified, less as a strict chronology that all must agree upon, and more as a way of beginning to understand Great War archaeology. Each of these phases is as notable for its broader anthropological dimension as it is for its contribution to the archaeology of conflict. The first phase belongs to the period of the war itself, 1914–18, the second to the years 1919–90, the third to the decade of the 1990s and the early 2000s, and the fourth from 2002 to the present. In this book, this timeline relates mainly, but not exclusively, to the Western Front (and includes different developments in France and Belgium). Although some examples are taken from other theatres of the war, similar chronologies for the Eastern Front, Italy, the Balkans, Gallipoli, and the Middle East have not yet been suggested. The outline offered here is neither hard and fast, nor universally applicable, and it is not meant to be. It is a general framework, designed to throw light on the complex origins and development of Great War archaeology, its connections with anthropology, history and other disciplines, and its potential for changing our ideas of what modern archaeology is about, and what it can achieve.

Phase 1: 1914–18

The Western Front was, in effect, a parallel set of the two longest archaeological trenches in history – one Allied, the other German. These stretched some 500km from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border, and were supplemented by dugouts, underground tunnels and extensive systems of support trenches cut at right angles to the front line. It is estimated that the French army alone dug 10,000km of trenches (Barbusse 2003: 25). It is possible that more earth was dug, more archaeological sites uncovered, more stratigraphy revealed, and more ancient artefacts discovered during the four years of the war than at any time before or since. To this must be added the devastation of landscape and towns caused by four years of artillery bombardment by both sides, which itself, and ironically, opened up previously unknown (or long-forgotten) archaeological areas. Nevertheless, in both instances, war conditions meant that much of this newly discovered archaeological data went unrecorded or was subsequently lost.

This was clearly a different kind of archaeology. It was not the archaeology of the ongoing war itself, but rather a miscellany of discoveries of traditional archaeological kinds, revealed as a byproduct of industrialised conflict. Never before had there been the strategic conditions or the weapons that cut open the landscape across such vast areas as happened between 1914 and 1918.

Artillery barrage and the digging of trenches uncovered Gallo-Roman and medieval remains in built-up areas, and revealed traces of older prehistory in open country. This early relationship between war and archaeology is illustrated by the link between the intensity of fighting and the discovery of archaeological remains. Prominent in this respect was the rapid German advance across the Somme battlefield in spring 1918 – part of the so-called Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's Battle).

In response to the German advance, Captain J.B. Frost of the Royal Engineers dug defensive trenches at Harponville on the Somme in April, and discovered a Neolithic axe, which is now in the Imperial War Museum, London. Similarly, Captain Francis Buckley of the Northumberland Fusiliers supervised the digging of trenches at Coigneux, some 6 miles behind the British lines southwest of Arras. Coigneux was reinforced by these trenches, known as the 'Red Line', though, as Buckley observed, they were never used. Inspecting these freshly dug and empty Red Line trenches, Buckley discovered Palaeolithic (Mousterian) artefacts, and noted that that, 'For about 15 or 20 yards along the parapets there was a good sprinkling of implements, some recently broken and some whole. ... [including] a hand axe ..., a typical Levallois flake and a number of scrapers' (Buckley 1920–1: 4). Buckley would spend over three years in France and Belgium, during which time he collected many prehistoric 'flints'.

The German offensive failed, and in August the Allies began pushing them back east across the Somme battlefield to the defensive position known as the Hindenburg Line. As the Germans retreated, artillery fire left new landscapes pitted with craters, in one of which, at Richcourt-les-Bapaume, a British soldier picked up a prehistoric flint tool. A photograph of this implement, labelled 'War Souvenir Flint' and 'French microlith (Late Cave Period)', is now in the Tolson Memorial Museum in Huddersfield.

German and French soldiers were also involved in similar activities. At Juvincourt-Damary, in the French department of the Aisne, German soldiers digging trenches under cover of night kept an eagle eye on their excavations, hoping to find metal scrap from enemy bombardments that they could sell or exchange for a profit. On one occasion, they discovered a Bronze Age trove of axe-heads, projectiles, knives and jewellery, which they quickly divided up among themselves and eventually took back to Germany (Niethammer 1923; Jockenhövel and Smolla 1975: 289–90).

An equally dramatic discovery was recorded by the French soldier-author Henri Barbusse, whose literary account of his war experiences was published as Under Fire in 1917, and became a bestseller. In one passage, where Barbusse and his comrade Tulacque are digging tunnels, Tulacque shows him a Neolithic or Bronze Age bone-hafted flint axe which he had found in a subterranean gallery the previous night, and which he was using in preference to the standard-issue army axe (Barbusse 1988: 10; 2003: 12). In this instance, the war had led to the discovery of a prehistoric artefact that had originally been used to dig subterranean galleries, and was now being reused for the same purpose, in war conditions, more than three thousand years later.

On the Eastern Front also, digging trenches, dugouts and fortifications uncovered numerous archaeological remains, from prehistoric tools and burials to caches of more recent coins, often only centimetres beneath the surface. Dynamiting the ground for laying fortification foundations produced showers of Bronze Age and Iron Age bones and artefacts, and numerous army newspapers reported on the prehistoric artefacts that were found during trench digging (Liulevicius 2000: 37–8). The battlezone landscape itself was a virtually untouched (and uninvestigated) palimpsest of prehistoric remains – hundreds of hillforts, and innumerable survivals of pre-Christian beliefs commemorated as Christianised roadside crosses (ibid.) and other expressions of peasant soldier Christian faith. In Macedonia, in northern Greece – then still part of the Ottoman Empire – the wartime activities of Allied forces (particularly the French and British) based in and around Thessaloniki (Salonica) not only uncovered previously unknown archaeological sites, but actively stimulated serious archaeological research as well as the inevitable looting (Saunders n.d.).

The French and British, though wartime allies, could not resist competing with each other in the guise of archaeology. The French set up a wartime archaeological service, identified and excavated many sites, and displayed the finds to their troops (Mazower 2004: 316–17). The British High Command responded in kind, and ordered that all discoveries made while digging trenches and dugouts be reported to military headquarters. Meanwhile, the soldiers themselves scavenged the prehistoric tumuli of the region (ibid.). Soldiers of the Black Watch, Cheshires and Wiltshires discovered whole prehistoric cemeteries, burials with jewellery, and innumerable artefacts. Even rock-cut tombs above the ancient Macedonian city of Amphipolis by the River Strymon were investigated by the Royal Army Medical Corps when an enemy artillery barrage unexpectedly opened up a Hellenistic tomb dating to around 200 BC (Saunders n.d.).

Discoveries were also made away from the battlefields, in areas that were, nevertheless, still places affected by conflict. Arguably one of the best-known examples was the investigation by the archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes of an archaeological site first revealed by the construction of a prisoner-of-war camp on Jersey in the Channel Islands (Finn 2005: 126–7). Hawkes published her findings in 1939, and included a drawing of flints from 'chipping areas' within a prisoner-of-war camp at Les Blanches Banques that had been used between 1915 and 1919. The ground had been disturbed by building, occupation and abandonment of the camp, and revealed a large area of prehistoric occupation with flints, pottery, stone implements and shell middens dating to the end of what was then called the megalithic period (i.e. the late Neolithic, early Bronze Age) (Hawkes 1939: 66 n. 9, 179–80, n. 9). In the same way as in the battlezones, wartime activity had served to 'excavate' archaeological remains.

From the Western and Eastern fronts, south to Turkey, Mesopotamia and Egypt, the war was conducted above and below ground in landscapes of imposing (and sometimes hitherto unknown) archaeological monuments. These archaeological discoveries were incidental, confined to sites and artefacts revealed only by wartime activities. Events during this period had a direct relationship to archaeology itself, and to the beginnings of Great War archaeology. The war had uncovered large numbers of previously unknown archaeological sites and significant quantities of artefacts, and so added to traditional archaeology's knowledge of the past.

Importantly, the conflict also randomly mixed pre-war archaeological strata with levels of destruction of historic and contemporary buildings, war materiel, unexploded ordnance and human remains. This hybrid layer could take many forms. The constants were traces of war-related activities, destruction, bodies and weaponry; while the variables were the older remains of the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age or Iron Age periods, either on their own, or in combination. This new, infinitely variable (and sometimes potentially lethal) hybrid layer belonged to the war itself, and is the focus of Great War archaeology.

Phase 2: 1919–90

In the war's aftermath, the old battlezones of the Western Front were gradually reclaimed through bomb clearance and reconstruction – activities that together created a new shallow layer of civilian reoccupation overlying the war level, and dating mainly to the 1920s and 1930s (Clout 1996). In addition, the Imperial War Graves Commission, now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), scoured the battlefields locating individual bodies for identification and burial, and consolidating small battlefield cemeteries into larger ones (Longworth 1985). Much of this activity is what today would be called forensic archaeology, although it was not seen in this way at the time. The bodies located during these official activities were respectfully reburied in CWGC cemeteries, but there were other, more clandestine and less respectful activities that occurred alongside them.

Refugees returning to their destroyed villages and poisoned farmlands were confronted with dire economic circumstances in which they were unable immediately to resume their pre-war lives, and had to find alternative ways of making a living. One quickly acquired habit was searching the battlefields for military scrap, unfired munitions and miscellaneous war materiel, which could be sold to the authorities, or – sometimes in its raw state, sometimes made into 'trench-art' objects – sold as souvenirs to the burgeoning numbers of battlefield pilgrims and tourists who began arriving in 1919. During the 1920s and 1930s, searching and clearing the battlefields became a newly invented 'tradition' for the local inhabitants of an area, begun in childhood, continued when adult, and passed on in turn to their own children.


Excerpted from Killing Time by Nicholas J. Saunders. Copyright © 2011 Nicholas J. Saunders. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Nicholas J. Saunders is a leading authority on, and a moving force behind, the development of a modern and scientific archaeology of the First World War. He organized the first International Conference on the Anthropology and Archaeology of the First World War. His publications include books on trench art, and Ancient Americas: The Great Civilisations. He is Reader in Material Culture in the Department of Anthropology at University College, London.

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