Home   Maidstone   News   Article

The First World War trenches at Detling Showground near Maidstone featuring props from Sam Mendes film 1917 and used in Dermot O’Leary Channel 4 documentary


More news, no ads

LEARN MORE

Detling Showground is popular for its military events and re-enactment but it's also a site is steeped in over 2,000 years of history.

Now, a 150-metre-long First World War trench network, stretching across woodland, has been dug by a team of passionate history buffs who want to bring the past to life. So what was it like to live and fight in the trenches? Our reporter was put through her paces to find out...

The replica World War One trench system by CEMA, based at the Kent Showground, Detling
The replica World War One trench system by CEMA, based at the Kent Showground, Detling

This isn't what I was expecting to be doing on a Friday morning.

I am standing head to toe in full army gear, a 77lb (35kg) bag on my back and a steel helmet on my head, whilst a man dressed as an officer commands me to pick up my feet as we head into the trenches.

Yes, you read that right - the trenches.

As I am stumbling down in my uniform to the site hidden in the trees, Andy Robertshaw, a military historian, explains the showground is very rich in history.

He said: "Nearby there's evidence of what would have been a Roman watchtowner, also we have a well-preserved Norman motte-and-bailey castle, and this site in particular was part of the 1914 Chatham Land Front - which was to protect any attacks from the south east. So it really was a battlefield!"

Reporter Cara Simmonds with tour guide Craig Appleton
Reporter Cara Simmonds with tour guide Craig Appleton

The 65-year-old runs the Centre for Experimental Military Archaeology (CEMA), which is a 'pan-historical experimentation' involving the methods of military attack and defence and soldiers’ day-to-day lives, from the Roman period to the Second World War.

They work in collaboration with the University of Kent and Wessex Archaeology to provide research and educational experiences using cutting-edge technology, the arts, and traditional means.

Mark Ingarfield, business director of CEMA, says that the 150m long and 2m deep trench took about a year to build, and is a complete replica of the Railway Wood trench in Ypres, Belgium - which is one of the most well preserved British frontline First World War trenches remaining.

The 53-year-old said: "In March last year we hired out a digger for a week, but we made sure to use the exact same materials and methods from the past.

"It has been quite surprising and it hasn't cost us that much - around £3,500 initially.

Business Director of CEMA Mark Ingarfield, left, and Andy Robertshaw, Lead Historian, created the organisation last year
Business Director of CEMA Mark Ingarfield, left, and Andy Robertshaw, Lead Historian, created the organisation last year
The replica World War One trench system by CEMA, based at the Kent Showground, Detling
The replica World War One trench system by CEMA, based at the Kent Showground, Detling

"But obviously there is still ongoing work, so we do sometimes have to buy more materials."

The team have also planned to expand the site, by extending the length of the trench.

Andy added: "Quite recently we have had railway sleepers donated and an Anderson shelter was sold to us cheap - everyone has been absolutely splendid.

"Many people who have contributed had family who were in the war, or just been very interested in military history.

"A lot of the replica trench was built from reading old manuals, studying photographs and interviews with veterans.

Our reporter explored the replica trench system
Our reporter explored the replica trench system
The periscope played a life-saving role in the First World War - troops fighting would have used one like this to see out of their trenches
The periscope played a life-saving role in the First World War - troops fighting would have used one like this to see out of their trenches

"For example, I was taught by a veteran how to build sandbag walls 35 years ago, who saw my attempts to build a wall and ridiculed it."

After around 10 minutes of walking and talking, I see the first glimpses of the trench, and am immediately taken aback.

In between the mounds of earth, corrugated metal and hundreds of sandbags, pathways stretch out in different directions, no bigger than a metre wide.

Barbed wire surrounds each path, along with telephone wires and signposts saying 'Walking Wounded', 'West Lane' and of course - 'Latrine'.

Luckily it was a clear and sunny day, as I couldn't begin to imagine how muddy and uncomfortable the place would become after a shower or two.

Tour guide Craig Appleton, left, showed reporter Cara Simmonds around the site
Tour guide Craig Appleton, left, showed reporter Cara Simmonds around the site

Now I admit I'm not a strong person, but I have done my fair share of lugging bags around when camping or going on holiday.

However, the amount of items that was on me made it impossible at first to even step down into the trench.

My tour guide, Craig Appleton, made it look a breeze, however I nearly cut a telephone wire hanging above me as I slung the bayonet rifle onto my shoulder.

This was my first time ever holding a gun, and I felt very awkward – I am definitely not cut out to do this, but I don't believe anyone was in the war.

Reading books and looking at pictures in my school history lessons doesn't come close to walking in a real-life, outside trench.

Replicas of rations which soldiers would have eaten whilst serving on the front line
Replicas of rations which soldiers would have eaten whilst serving on the front line
Craig Appleton, right, demonstrates how soldiers would line up their weapons in the sandbag wall to shoot the enemy
Craig Appleton, right, demonstrates how soldiers would line up their weapons in the sandbag wall to shoot the enemy

This one was complete with gun positions, a dug out, No Man’s Land and even a German front line.

Mark and Andy tell me they got the crazy idea for the project at the start of last year.

Andy said: "I used to work at the National Army Museum in Chelsea, where we had a replica trench - it was indoors and sanitised regularly.

"What we realised was that we needed a permanent site, somewhere where people could get a proper understanding of the experience of being in the trenches.

"Here at CEMA we are looking at the nuts and bolts of actually living in a trench, as well as different aspects of defence and offence.

Have you ever wondered where you would go to the toilet? It's fair to say the life of a soldier wasn't a glamorous one
Have you ever wondered where you would go to the toilet? It's fair to say the life of a soldier wasn't a glamorous one

"We look into the questions such as where would you eat, where would you sleep and where would you go to the toilet?"

The organisation has only been open for just over a year, but has been gaining large amounts of interest.

"Almost within weeks of finishing the project, we had a filming crew come here in June," Andy explained. "This was before we even opened it up more to the Army, schools and other groups."

The site has hosted a number of documentary and production visits, including Channel 4's three-part historical series, 48 Hours to Victory with Dermot O’Leary, which aired last December.

It was also used for 'The Fronts of War', a film directed by Thomas Gardner which Andy also helped work on.

CEMA has been able to create a lifesize trench in Detling
CEMA has been able to create a lifesize trench in Detling

The 25-year-old's debut has now won 15 accolades and five nominations across the globe.

However, this wasn't Andy's first time getting involved on a film set. His impressive CV includes being military advisor to some of Hollywood's biggest releases, such as Steven Spielberg's War Horse and Sam Mendes' BAFTA winning 1917.

He said: "In 2011, I discovered that they were making the film War Horse. I put my name forward to DreamWorks as an advisor for the movie, and to my immense surprise I got the job!

"I worked with the costume and props department, and then ended up actually being in a scene in the film.

"That then lead to me working on the first Wonder Woman film - putting bandages on the wounded in Tilbury - and also advising on the set of The King's Man."

Behind the scenes of Thomas Gardner's debut production, The Fronts of War, which was filmed on site
Behind the scenes of Thomas Gardner's debut production, The Fronts of War, which was filmed on site

The historian also worked extensively alongside Sam Mendes in the 2019 'one-shot' film 1917.

He added: "I made sure all the soldiers were correctly turned out, everything looked okay and that no big mistakes were made.

"Some of these props in the trench, like the ladders, came directly from the set of 1917."

I struggled getting out of my uniform, which surprisingly wasn't as itchy as I thought, but nevertheless had made me sweat buckets.

Andy had to help me take off a pair of khaki 'putties' - which is apparently an Indian word for bandages and wrap around the base of the leg and ankle to stop mud and dirt getting into the boots.

Soldiers would drink water that was stored in fuel cans - most of the time it mixed with the remnants of petrol
Soldiers would drink water that was stored in fuel cans - most of the time it mixed with the remnants of petrol
Inside of what would have been soldiers living quarters when they weren't on shift
Inside of what would have been soldiers living quarters when they weren't on shift

Now that I was finally allowed to breathe again, Andy gave me a piece of paper to take home.

It turns out he had done some research and found a soldier named Charles Alfred Simmonds, who had served in The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) and died in May 1915, just aged 23.

Even though I am not sure of my lineage, that bit of paper really highlighted just how many people the war affected, especially with Charles only being two years older than me.

I have always wondered why we should preserve and remember history - what is its importance?

Andy explained that it's vital to honor those who died, but also to reflect on those who didn't.

The trench at Detling is around 150m long, 2m deep and took roughly one year to build
The trench at Detling is around 150m long, 2m deep and took roughly one year to build
Head to toe in traditional army gear, in a hand-made trench in Detling
Head to toe in traditional army gear, in a hand-made trench in Detling

He said: "My grandmother was working in an ammunitions factory at the time, and only survived because she finished her shift at 10pm. At 10.37pm the factory blew up.

"If she had died, I wouldn't be here.

"I think we concentrate a lot on combat and the fallen, at the detriment of those people who did their three, four or five years, working in a factory or trench.

"They then have to go home and pick up the threads of their lives that they had.

"We are here to talk about the experience of people in the past, we aren’t here to glamorise it - this is certainly not a glamorous existence."

CEMA is currently offering tours to the public, and their next open day is on June 25, 10am to 4pm - find out more here.

Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More