[Image: The WWI terrain model of Messines, Belgium, in Cannock Chase, England; photo, “taken probably 1918 by Thomas Frederick Scales,” courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand].
Past Horizons reported the other week that “a large concrete terrain model on Cannock Chase, representing a section of the Great War battle of Messines Ridge, is to be excavated” by archaeologists later this year.
The preserved but damaged model “represents the section of the front captured by New Zealand troops,” and, indeed, the model itself was used most extensively by troops from New Zealand who had been stationed in England during the war.
[Image: The concrete model at Cannock Chase, including a viewing hut; photo via The First World War Camps of Cannock Chase].
The construction of the model is itself pretty fascinating, as it was accomplished with the forced help of German POWs:
The Messines model had been constructed at Brocton in 1918 by men from the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, using German labour from the nearby prisoner of war camp. The use of trench maps and aerial photographs ensured the model, constructed in concrete, had a high degree of accuracy; trenches, strong points, railways, roads and buildings all being represented. The model was used to train soldiers in topography and to show how an impeccably planned battle could be won with minimal casualties. One feature, believed to be a “viewing platform” around three sides of the model still exists.
The “full excavation” to occur later this year—hopefully more photographs of the model will emerge online—will include the “recording and reburial” of the simulated landscape.
[Image: A viewing hut for studying the model landscape; photo via The First World War Camps of Cannock Chase].
An interpretive center—complete with an interactive 3D digital model of the nearby 3D concrete model of the actual 3D battlefield in Belgium—will also be constructed, to guide visitors through the site and to “explain how these models were used to prepare troops for battle.”
Near the model, however, lie the rest of the training camps at Cannock Chase, the subject of at least one historical website about these wartime facilities, where we read about the preserved earthworks used to train soldiers for trench warfare:
Front line trenches were typically constructed in a pattern which in plan resembled battlements (also known as the Greek Key pattern) with the intention that attackers were fired upon from three sides. Conversely communication trenches connecting the front line with reserve trenches were built in a zig-zag pattern. This ensured that if the front line trenches fell the enemy would not have a clear line of sight down the length of the “communication” trench and could therefore not enfilade (fire straight at) approaching reinforcements.
They were topographic baffles, we might say.
[Image: The scale of the model becomes more clear in this photo, also via Past Horizons].
Briefly, I’m reminded of an aside by natural historian Tim Flannery in his long but extraordinarily interesting book The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, where he comments on the Maori origins of European trench warfare tactics.
The Maori—pre-European but remarkably recent inhabitants of the islands of New Zealand—had been brutalized, in Flannery’s telling, by their own environmental mismanagement of their adopted island home, all but exterminating the indigenous wild bird population and reducing themselves, through egregiously unsustainable hunting practices, to an almost stereotypically Hobbesian state of nature.
They had thus long been at war amongst themselves, fighting over the archipelago’s steadily dwindling sources of protein—which is when the British came along, unknowingly stumbling into the midst of what Flannery describes as a chaotic and very nearly continuous state of ecologically-necessitated human conflict.
The British, Flannery explains, thus learned firsthand that the Maori had already gone to ground, so to speak, digging themselves into defensive trenches and other complex earthworks as their battles became both more extreme and more sophisticated. “Indeed,” Flannery writes, “during the Maori defense of the pa [or fortress] Puapekapeka, the British learned their first lessons in trench warfare and underground bunkers from the Maori. They were to turn these tactics to their advantage in the First World War.”
Of course, as we’ve explored elsewhere on BLDGBLOG, Flannery’s claim is an overstatement—”siege mines” and other forms of militarized earthworks had already long existed in the European war tradition, well before English seafarers reached New Zealand—but it’s an interesting claim, nonetheless, and it resonates strangely with this vision of New Zealand troops studying trench geometries on a large-scale 3D concrete model in the middle of WWI England, preparing to dig themselves into “Greek key” and zig-zag patterns over on the European mainland.