The entrance to Yorkshire Trench & Dug Out, very easy to miss, particularly if you are looking the other way in the brief moment the car passes by.
I read an online review of Yorkshire Trench before our visit. The reviewer didn’t reckon it was really worth visiting, so my expectations were not that high as Baldrick & I scoured the industrial estate in an eventually successful quest to find it. On arrival the place was full of schoolkids, which is excellent from all sorts of point of view, apart from ours when we are trying to do this stuff (you old curmudgeon, you). However within a few minutes of us arriving the kids were hastily bundled back on to their coach (I have no idea if the two events were linked), and for twenty minutes we had the place to ourselves, the next visitors arriving just as we left. Be warned. This is a long one.
The site was excavated by a group of self-styled amateur Belgian archaeologists who called themselves, appropriately, the Diggers. I’ll relate the story behind the discovery of these trench systems a bit later, and some of the history, but first, it is important to understand what it is we are looking at here, and this little board on entering contains information crucial to an understanding of the site. The dark brown zig-zag line at the top is the excavated Yorkshire Trench itself; the light brown line directly beneath it is an earlier French trench, and as we tour the site, we will be able to trace this trench by the wooden duckboard walkway laid across the grass a few yards in front of Yorkshire Trench. The light lines and squares show the dugout complex that was uncovered at the time of the first excavations, marked above ground today by gravel pathways,…
…the use to which each of the rooms that lead off the underground passages was put marked on wooden posts; the room just visible above was used for storage,…
…and this one was the carpenter’s room. So, now you know what you are looking at, let’s move on. Time, first, to review the fighting in this area over a few days in the summer of 1915, long before Yorkshire Trench came into being. Following the end of the First Battle of Ypres in May 1915 and the forming of the Ypres Salient, the front here at the northern edge of the salient remained relatively quiet, except for the ever-present battle between the opposing artillery batteries, for the next few weeks. French troops had prevented the Germans from breaking through here, before handing over the sector to the British at the end of the month (and thus, as their tenure here was for but a few weeks, the French trench can be fairly accurately dated as having been made between the date of the first gas attack, 22nd April, and the end of May). June passed with both sides improving their trench systems as best they could, and it was one of the old French trenches that the Germans occupied and turned to their own use which would become known as International Trench in the forthcoming fighting.
In June 1915 the British decided on an attack on International Trench to improve the tactical situation at the very north of the Ypres Salient, and distract the Germans from a planned British attack at Hooge. As was so often the way of things, the Hooge attack was eventually called off, but the International Trench raid went ahead. The attack began with an hour-long bombardment by French & British artillery, including a single eighteen pounder gun rafted across the canal by Royal Engineers, who then dragged it up and over the canal bank and across three trenches to a pre-prepared gun pit just seventy five yards from the Germans, firing over an open sight and demolishing the German line and much of the wire in front of it. The Germans responded, a counter barrage causing the first British casualties of the operation.
At 6.00am on 5th July 1915, men of the 1st Bn. The Rifle Brigade left their trenches and, the eighteen pounder having smashed most of the German barbed wire in front of them to pieces, rushed the Germans in International Trench. Supported by the 1st Bn. Somerset Light Infantry, they captured some 500 yards of the German line, British bombers fighting German bombers, beginning a fight that would continue unabated for the next few days.
This photograph was taken in the late 1990s, just months before the industrial estate extension obliterated this land forever. Within half an hour retaliatory German gunfire had destroyed both of the nearest canal bridges, Royal Engineers working under fire to repair them. New trenches were already being dug to attempt to link up International Trench with the British front line, the Somerset men and Royal Engineers engaged in this managing to create trenches three feet deep by 7.30am, although they suffered 40% casualties as a result. By early afternoon reinforcements were beginning to reach the survivors of the morning’s fighting, at the same time as the Germans opened a concentrated artillery barrage on the British trenches on both sides of the canal, the presage of the inevitable counterattack, which duly came, a concerted two hour bombing attack on both flanks of the captured trench failing to eject the British defenders. Later in the afternoon artillery broke up another German counter attack before it could get started, reinforcements from the Hampshire Regiment reaching the trench to help the defenders.
At 3.30 in the afternoon another bombardment preceded a German advance on the left using a communication trench for cover, but it failed as British artillery found their targets; sadly, the closeness of the opposing forces saw casualties among the Somersets as well. The bombardment continued until late in the evening. Overnight, the men of the Rifle Brigade and the Somerset Light Infantry were relieved by the Lancashire Fusiliers & the Royal Warwickshires, who would spend the next four days defending the captured territory, small pieces of land, more Dead Men’s Land than No Man’s Land, constantly changing hands as the bombers fought their horrible war. On 10th July the Germans actually succeeded in recapturing their old positions from the 5th York and Lancaster Regiment, who promptly counterattacked and regained the lost ground.
Eventually the Germans, deciding the shattered remains of the trench were no longer worth fighting for, linked their lines up again a little further back in front of Farm 14 (Ferme 14 on the map). By the end of the week the British had made a gain of maybe a hundred yards along a three hundred yard front, reported as ‘a small but successful operation’, as I mentioned many posts back. The small room marked by the gravel nearest the camera in the previous photograph…
…once contained the pumps which, thirty feet beneath our feet, continually hummed and throbbed, night and day, pumps without which,…well, you’ll see later.
Official British casualty figures for the fighting over International Trench quote a total of 366 dead between 6th & 11th July, and you wonder what the casualty figures for a small but unsuccessful operation might have been. More specific figures include the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, who lost one officer and 27 other ranks dead, along with 102 wounded; Rifle Brigade casualties were put at four officers and 67 other ranks killed, and 180 wounded including four officers; and the 1st East Lancashires, who had also been holding the line hereabouts at the start of the raid, lost one officer and 42 other ranks killed, and 201 wounded, including six officers.
Now, were you to cast your mind back to when we visited Talana Farm Cemetery (or click the link) earlier in this tour, the only cemetery with a substantial number of casualties from the raid, we found 101 men buried there who died during the fighting, and notwithstanding the fact that a few men might lie beneath the small number of unnamed headstones in the cemetery, and probably some graves in the cemetery were lost to later shellfire, it is nonetheless pretty clear there must be over two hundred men killed over those six days whose bodies were never found and whose remains must still lie beneath the industrial estate that now surrounds this small piece of land.
The names of 218 British soldiers killed between 6th & 11th July 1915 can be found on the Menin Gate, according to the Diggers’ research, and I’m going to take their word on it.
The story behind the eventual discovery of Yorkshire Trench starts in the spring of 1991, when an unfortunate farmer found his tractor quite literally sinking into what appeared to be the entrance to a World War I dugout. The dugout turned out to be a British command post, and during 1992 the underground workings were drained and explored by the Diggers before the project was closed down.
Back in 1992, however, there had been no sign of any trench, and it was not until 1998, with impending rumours, soon to be fact, of the extending of the industrial estate along the east bank of the canal, that the Diggers returned, the next four years, as the bulldozers and construction work began around them, a race against time to uncover as much of this area as possible. They soon realised that not only were they right on the front lines, as they began uncovering Yorkshire Trench and an earlier, much more primitive French trench a few yards away, but it appeared that the area in which they were working had not been cleared, certainly not to any great extent or depth, after the war*.
*According to elderly locals in the late 20th Century, the farmer who owned the land would chase off anyone attempting post-war battlefield clearance!
The Diggers work on this site continued until 2003, and although it is not my place to tell their tale here (it’s a big story, they do it perfectly well themselves, and I’ll give you a link to their site at the end), suffice to say that the whole story deserves an hour of your time, and what we see here is all the result of their hard work and diligence.
Following the local authority’s decision to reconstruct (or restore – you discuss the difference) this section of Yorkshire Trench, some 5000 sandbags were carefully positioned before being coated in liquid cement, ready for the official opening of the site in May 2003.
A number of Livens Projectors, found during the excavation, have been positioned behind the trench.
The Livens Projector was a primitive yet effective mortar, first introduced on the Western Front by the British at Pozières on the Somme, during the bombardment preceding the beginning of the battle on 1st July 1916.
It became the standard British method of delivering gas for the rest of the war,…
…and one of the tubes still contained a phosgene shell inside it when uncovered by the Diggers.
Re-created A-frames show you exactly how British trenches were supposed to be constructed, plenty of room beneath the duckboards to allow water and liquid mud to pass beneath the boards, collected in sumps positioned along the trench floor – the theory is excellent. Apart from about a dozen that had to be replaced, the Diggers left the majority of the original eighty eight A-frames discovered during the excavations in situ; they are still there beneath the duckboards we are about to walk upon, guaranteeing that the line of the trench is exactly as it was during 1916 & 1917.
So let’s take a walk in the footsteps of the men who manned this trench in 1917.
There has been a lot of weathering, as you can see (above & below), in the nearly fifteen years since the site was opened,…
…partly by design, I believe.
One of two dugout entrances excavated and restored by the Diggers, this staircase extends some forty three feet, at which point you would be thirty feet beneath the surface, and now you can see exactly why the pump room was so important. Without the pumps working twenty four hours a day, the high water table would make underground work – underground anything – impossible.
British sniper guard.
Once upon a time there was a ‘Firing Line’ signpost pointing to this bay,…
…but I guess someone nicked it. This shield, however, is well fixed, otherwise I suspect that it too would be long gone.
Trench-eye views of the Livens Projectors (above & below).
When the trench was excavated for the first time in the summer of 1998 I gather that only some sections revealed sandbags, other parts of the trench using corrugated iron sheeting and chicken wire in their construction, in particular where trench repairs had been made.
A loophole near the northern dug-out entrance looks out over a one-time No Man’s Land about 400 yards wide at this point, across to the German strongpoint at Caesar’s Nose. No trees back then, of course, just mud and wire and bodies and tins. Lots of empty tins, chucked over the trench parapet, providing another hazard for nighttime trench raiders.
The second dugout entrance, slightly less steep, at sixty five feet in length, than the first.
A-frames, duckboards & sandbags – the three crucial ingredients in British trench-making.
Time to return to the history. After the International Trench raid, both sides spent the autumn of 1915 repairing and consolidating their trenches, but the coming of winter brought with it terrible weather that turned the northern section of the Salient into a boggy wasteland, artillery fire blasting the trenches into little more than a disconnected series of shell holes. In the New Year, as the weather relented, repairs could be made, a difficult task made worse for both sides by the close proximity of the opposing trenches, in places close enough for the odd bomb to be hurled from one front line to the other by an expert thrower, all amid the human debris left from the previous year’s fighting.
Throughout, the day-to-day business of war never stopped, and on 19th February 1916, the Germans captured a British post known as F34, close to the canal, at the very north of the British positions. This allowed them to fire into the rear of the British front line for some distance to their south east, necessitating a speedy British withdrawal along several hundred yards of front. Conditions underfoot meant the British had to withdraw a good 250 yards, further than anticipated and widening No Man’s Land considerably, and part of the new positions they established became what we now know as Yorkshire Trench, first marked, although not named, on British maps in the autumn of 1916.
This trench map shows International Trench in pink, the British front line prior to February 1916 in blue, and the position of Yorkshire Trench, after the withdrawal, in green.
It was sometime late in 1916 or early 1917 that the construction of the Yorkshire Trench dugout began, and despite the extreme difficulty of such work beneath the plains of Flanders, as we now know, the tunnels and chambers were successfully excavated without alerting the Germans.
Yorkshire Trench initially appears as a named British trench on maps in January 1917. It’s interesting that the British built their trench slightly behind the old French trench; I suspect it was a very unsavoury place after a year or more of non-usage. The British strategic retreat of some 250 yards at this point in February 1916 made Yorkshire Trench the new front line, and so it would remain for a year or more, the men manning the far left section of the trench just a couple of hundred yards from the Germans, those further along the trench perhaps double that from the German front line.
The Diggers discovered newer trenches dug in No Man’s Land in front of Yorkshire Trench in preparation for the Third Battle of Ypres, perhaps saps stretching into No Man’s Land giving troops a head start in their race to the German trenches when the whistles blew, but it was still, in essence, the front line right up until the start of the battle on 31st July 1917.
As we near the end of our visit, let’s take another look at the plan of the excavated area I showed you at the start of the post, and more specifically the dugout chambers thirty feet beneath the surface, this time with my own added annotations. Moving up from the very bottom of the board, we have the now-gone gunsmith’s room (yellow) beneath the road (see photo below), a storage room (purple), the carpenter’s room (dark green) and the pump room (orange).
The underground workings extended at least seventy five feet into No Man’s Land; the tunnels now coming to an abrupt end here where the new road cuts across them.
Bunk rooms 1-4 are marked on the plan in light green,…
and olive green respectively,…
…and the final room, the Command Post,…
…is marked in dark brown.
One of the old information boards showing, among other things, Yorkshire Trench in the centre after excavation, and original A-frames in situ. During their excavations between 1998 & 2003 the Diggers found approximately 200 bodies, British, French & German, but as far as I know only one, Francois Metzinger, a Zouave of the French Armée d’Afrique that suffered so terribly during the first German gas attacks on 22nd April 1915, was identifiable by his metal dogtag. British soldiers’ dogtags of the time were made of a somewhat perishable fibre material, and up until 1916 they only carried one dogtag, which was to be removed from their bodies, if possible, after death. Which left the body difficult, often impossible, to identify at a later date. Brilliant!
View looking south east from the Command Post, the bunk rooms visible off the passageway straight ahead of us. Turning right immediately in front of us,…
…this passageway lead from the Command Post to the second dug out entrance in Yorkshire Trench itself. It is impossible to prove for certain whether Francois Metzinger was one of the men killed during the first gas attacks, but there can be no doubt that he must have died some time between then and late May, when the French handed over the sector to the British. Along with the other French soldiers discovered at the site, he is now buried in the French cemetery of St. Charles de Potyze. The British and German dead discovered at the site are all now buried in cemeteries near Langemark, the British in Cement House Cemetery, the Germans in Langemark German War Cemetery, both places we shall be visiting on this website later in the year.
So, is Yorkshire Trench worth a visit? To my mind the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’. And should you ever visit, now that you understand the background, tread softly elsewhere on the industrial estate, because God only knows how many men will now lie beneath the unforgiving concrete forever. Right, I promised you the link for the Diggers website earlier, so click here if you want to take a look. It hasn’t been updated for a long time for various reasons, but all the information on Yorkshire Trench that you would ever need can be found there. Some of the images are, as you would expect, disturbing, let’s say, so be warned. But how remarkable that two hundred men were found and could be given a proper burial before the concrete was laid, and that someone, somewhere, had the presence of mind, and the clout, to ensure that a little piece of this battlefield could be saved for posterity, as a tribute to the men who fell here, and for us to visit and pay our respects.