Salisbury Plain in the U.K. is well known for its Bronze Age and Neolithic settlements. After all, it’s where you’ll find the awe-inspiring gray columns of Stonehenge. But recently archaeologists have discovered something from the less-distant past, buried under the grounds of Larkhill Camp.
You might not have heard of Larkhill, but it’s an important site for the British military. Set just over a mile from Stonehenge, the facility has played host to soldiers since 1899. The first permanent dwellings were built there in 1914, at the start of the First World War – and it’s from that era that the new discovery hails.
Interestingly, though, while it may have been home to tented camps and military huts for over a century, it was only after the end of the Second World War that modern buildings were added to the site. Since then, Larkhill has become a garrison town; it houses both the Royal School of Artillery and the Royal Artillery.
In recent years, meanwhile, Larkhill has begun to become part of a super-garrison on Salisbury Plain. The idea is to increase the military presence in the area. Work started in 2016, with a focus on changing the infrastructure at the site, and it was these developments that led to the incredible discovery.
Some of the ground at Larkhill had been earmarked for new houses. But because that land had been used for live-fire exercises, it was vital that it was swept for unexploded bombs. Once the area had been cleared, however, workers made their amazing discovery. Under the ground, they found a network of hidden tunnels.
Now the tunnels were designed with a very specific purpose in mind. They were there to acclimatise recruits to the conditions that they’d be facing in the trenches of France and Belgium during the First World War. Yes, this was a facility devised to prepare soldiers for some of the horrors that they’d face on the front line.
And the preparation was rigorous, to say the least. “These men were being trained for the real thing, using live grenades – we know that because we found over 200 grenades in the tunnel, and 50 percent of them proved to be still live,” Si Cleggett from Wessex Archaeology told The Guardian.
Yet even discounting such explosive insight, the scale of the discovery really is unprecedented. “This is the first time anywhere in the world that archaeologists have had the chance to examine, excavate and record such an enormous expanse of First World War training ground,” Cleggett explained. There’s more to the find than just the tunnels, grenades and ordnance, though.
The underground complex also played host to a number of other fascinating artifacts. There were mess tins, Australian toffees, cans of condensed milk and other items that the soldiers had left in the tunnels when their training came to an end. And all help to paint a picture of the lives of the men who would have trained there.
Archaeologists in addition found marks burned into the walls and floors of the tunnels. These scorched areas showed where the recruits would have prepared their food. A brazier, made from a bucket, was also discovered. This would have been used to stave off the harsh cold of the winter nights
You see, the soldiers training here weren’t just stationed in the tunnels during the day. It was a long and grueling experience, all told, with many of them living in the trenches throughout the winter of 1916-17. “This wasn’t a couple of hours and back to barracks to a warm bed operation; the men were down in these tunnels for weeks on end,” Cleggett revealed.
So it perhaps shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that many of the tunnel walls were found covered in graffiti. Soldiers literally left their mark on the complex, signing their names on the stone. A number of these names have, furthermore, been linked back to service records, providing an intriguing image of life in wartime.
It transpires that at least one of the men who trained in the Larkhill tunnels later deserted. Meanwhile, another, a New Zealander by the name of Laurence Carthage Weathers, would go on to win the Victoria Cross. Using grenades, Weathers managed to overrun three German machine-gun posts, capturing 180 prisoners in the process.
Yet while Weathers would have trained in grenade warfare at Larkhill, he certainly wasn’t the only one. A number of other so-called bombers left their marks down in the tunnels. Case in point: a chalk plaque was uncovered bearing the names of Australians who had been taught to use the dangerous devices in and around the facility.
It’s also likely that detailed drawings were made of the tunnel and trench complexes. Somehow, though, it seems that these illustrations were lost in the aftermath of the First World War. But that’s not to say soldiers stationed at Larkhill didn’t know about the tunnels’ existence. A 1930s sports car was discovered underground there, as was a motorbike from the 1950s. Just how they got there is anyone’s guess.
The car, in particular, is a strange one. It was driven deep into the trenches and then covered with chalk and soil. Some of the archaeologists believe that the vehicle’s condition might have been the result of a prank or some form of mutiny against its owner by soldiers stationed at Larkhill. “To advertise the car as one careful owner in need of some TLC would undoubtedly be pushing it,” Cleggett joked.
But there’s a more solemn side to the site, too. Even though the tunnels and trenches at Larkhill were only ever used for training purposes, the barracks still claimed its fair share of casualties. Over 100 of the Australians who learned their skills at Larkhill died there, 80 percent of them from broncho-pneumonia. Many of these men would have likely caught the infection during the long journey to England.
What is more, men who passed through Larkhill also fought in some of the most famous battles of the First World War. They were present at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 as well as the Battle of Messines in 1917. And, undoubtedly, the skills that they learned on Salisbury Plain would have been vital during these fierce encounters.
In particular, soldiers at Larkhill were trained in the art of making listening posts. For hours on end, they’d sit in these posts, near enemy lines, using stethoscopes to listen out for movement. The men also learned how to tunnel underneath enemy positions – and this strategy was employed at both the Somme and Messines, where mines were detonated beneath German trenches.
The tunnels and trenches of Larkhill offer a glimpse, then, into a style of warfare that has largely long since been abandoned. And, talking to the BBC, Leggett explained the significance of the discovery. “It has been a humbling experience to stand and read the names of young soldiers in the very spaces they occupied before leaving for war,” he said. “Having stood in their footprints a century after their time at Larkhill, we really will remember them.”