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First World War centenary: Kent's trenches snaked from Maidstone to Sheppey, known as 'Barbed Wire Island'

By Chris Britcher

Trench warfare during the Great War conjures up images of the killing fields of northern France – muddy blood baths of barbed wire and the lifeless bodies of a generation.

But as we edge towards the centenary of the end of the First World War, a spotlight is being put on Kent’s very own trench system constructed amid fears of a German invasion.

From such fortified areas that Sheppey even found itself labelled with the nickname ‘Barbed Wire Island’, the county’s coastline was ringed with defences.

Keycol Hill tenches. Picture: Royal Engineers Archive
Keycol Hill tenches. Picture: Royal Engineers Archive

But the coast was far from alone.

A trench system snaked from Sheppey down to Maidstone: a maze of barbed wire, pillboxes, and gun emplacements.

In addition, there were defences along the edge of the North Downs, including Sevenoaks and Westerham.

The aim was to prevent the advance of troops landing in east Kent and looking to make their way inland towards London.

Newington, near Sittingbourne, was at the heart of those defences.

Tunnel Hill trench in Swale. Picture: Royal Engineers Archive
Tunnel Hill trench in Swale. Picture: Royal Engineers Archive

It controlled the road to Sheppey and the A2, then the main land route to London from the coastal ports, which is where the main thrust by an invading German army was expected to come.

Being midway between the capital and the ports, it was ideally sited.

After the war the trenches were filled in, guns removed and the fortifications were all but forgotten. Not surprisingly, little remains, though aerial pictures do show the shadows of trenches zig-zagging across fields.

The locals had no idea their village had been chosen to play a vital strategic role in the defence of the country until, in January 1915, hundreds of soldiers from the Royal Engineers ‘invaded’ the village.

Supported by an infantry from the Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment), and billeted in villagers’ homes and a tented camp, they quickly created an epic line of anti-invasion field defences.

The Sappers dug eight miles of trenches and installed hundreds of machine-gun positions.

The entrance to Westfield Shaw pillbox. Picture: Royal Engineers Archive
The entrance to Westfield Shaw pillbox. Picture: Royal Engineers Archive

Alan Anstee, from the Defence of Swale Project and an historian researching Kent during the Great War, says: “The lines began to resemble the Western Front, with miles of barbed wire, trenches, redoubts, tunnels, pillboxes, blockhouses and gun positions.

“They were to be manned and fought from by a home defence army similar to the Second World War’s Home Guard. The defences were removed and trenches filled in by German prisoners of war in 1919, and then gradually faded from memory, leaving remnants that are only now being rediscovered.”

What makes these north Kent trenches so historically significant is they are believed to be the only trenches in Britain that were built for defensive rather than training purposes.

To mark its place in history, a beacon has been erected in Newington, at the site of the former defences. It will be lit on November 11 as part of the national Beacons of Light project.

Thelma Dudley, Newington History Group secretary, and Dean Coles, NHG chairman, with the beacon basket
Thelma Dudley, Newington History Group secretary, and Dean Coles, NHG chairman, with the beacon basket

Taking place in more than 1,000 locations across the UK – and more than 100 sites across Kent – the beacons will symbolise an end to the darkness of war and a return to the light of peace.

The list of towns and villages taking part is constantly being added to, but will include various beacons in and around Thanet, Ashford, Canterbury, Maidstone, Swale, Dover, Folkestone, Tunbridge Wells, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Dartford and Gravesend.

Not all will be on public land so check before you set out.

One such is the new beacon in Newington. It will, however, be visible from nearby public footpaths and the village itself.

Newington's new beacon
Newington's new beacon

Dean Coles, chairman of Newington History Group, adds: “The beacon will stand as a reminder of the village’s remarkable role in the Great War and could be lit again for other celebrations and commemorations.”

For a full list of where the beacons will be lit see www.brunopeek.co.uk and click on ‘your guide to taking part’.

With just a few weeks to go, organisers of a 100-mile walk by 100 veterans to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, are calling for more people to get involved.

In a month’s time, the walkers taking part in The Long Walk Home will conclude their marathon pilgrimage from the Western Front in Belgium to London’s Cenotaph to form part of the remembrance service in front of the Queen.

From Flanders, the veterans – of various ages – will cross to Kent where they will spend the next three days progressing towards the capital.

Bassa gun used as part of the defences. Picture: Historial Research Group of Sittingbourne
Bassa gun used as part of the defences. Picture: Historial Research Group of Sittingbourne

And on each of the overnight stops, organisers are hoping the people of Kent will show some ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and help put the walkers up to ensure they are fighting fit to continue their fundraising effort.

The walk is organised by Haig Housing, which helps provide support and accommodation for ex-servicemen and women.

Chief executive officer Brigadier James Richardson said: “We hope we can find the homes to help accommodate all the walkers.

“Pick-up will be from a designated point around 5-6pm in the evening.

“Those kindly offering hospitality will then take two walkers home, allowing them to have a bath or a shower, feed them, give them a bed for the night, give them breakfast and bring them back for 8am.

“We’ll be leaving some mementoes as a little gift for the people who put us up and I’m sure there will be some great stories to hear.”

First World War pillbox near Wormdale. Picture: Alan Anstee
First World War pillbox near Wormdale. Picture: Alan Anstee

The first overnight stop will be in Dover on the night of Wednesday, November 7.

The route will then follow the North Downs Road, taking the walkers to Canterbury on Thursday, November 8.

Day three will see those taking part head along the A2 towards Medway, with the third night stop, on Friday, in Gillingham. Day four will see them head into London.

Anyone wanting to take part will need to be within 30 minutes drive of the pick-up and drop-off points.

What’s more, it’s hoped crowds will take to the streets to cheer the veterans on.

Brig Richardson added: “As we go through the towns along the old A2, hopefully people will come out to support us. We’ll drop some leaflets off so people know what we’re doing.

“We’re still looking for about another 20 hosts for each overnight stop.

The First World War lasted from 1914 to 1918
The First World War lasted from 1914 to 1918

“It’s a pilgrimage. It’s 100 years since the end of the First World War and we’re walking 100 miles with 100 veterans and really we’d like to give a chance to the people of Kent to partake in this important commemoration we’re doing.

“It’s a way of making sure we remember those who fought so gallantly and lost their lives so we could have freedom.

“They can walk along with us, volunteer to put up veterans, come out on to the streets and encourage us as we go by and we’ll be collecting money for a very good cause and we’d love their support.

“In a month’s time, we’ll march down The Mall, lay a wreath at the Cenotaph, salute the Queen and take our part with all the other veterans, knowing we’ve walked 100 miles to do that. We’re really looking forward to it.”

For details on how to take part visit The Long Walk Home website.

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