Excavation stations

1st February 2008 at 00:00
The reality of global conflict came vividly to life for boys at an Oxfordshire secondary when they recreated a First World War trench in the school grounds, writes Toby Purser.


What was it like in the trenches, Sir? This is the question so often posed by pupils in history lessons, and we teachers cannot supply an honest answer. We were not there and, despite documentaries, docu-dramas, the internet and trips to the battlefields, it is difficult for pupils to understand - short of putting them in a hole in the ground and shooting at them.

Which is almost what we did at Shiplake College in Oxfordshire. We missed out the shooting, but the joint efforts of the history department and the combined cadet force (CCF), with help from a mechanical digger, created a full-scale section of a First World War trench in the school grounds.

Myself and Chris Bridgman, a member of the art department who also leads the Army section of the CCF, hatched the plan over lunch. He gave his plans to the bursar, an ex-Royal Engineer, who was keen, as was the head.

Risk assessment forms were filled in and work began. Sandbags arrived, a dugout emerged. Boys were digging enthusiastically, duckboards and panelling were built using pallets from the garden centre. After weeks of organised havoc, a trench was complete.

We take pupils to the battlefields of Ypres and the Somme, the National Army Museum and the Imperial War Museum, but nothing quite prepared us for the experience of building and standing in a section of reconstructed trench. The boys had a look and the English department, currently teaching Journey's End, the R.C. Sherriff play, found it ideal. But then Chris had a better idea: why not spend a night in the trench and do sentry duty?

As we're a boarding school, it was easy to arrange and 10 volunteers from Year 9 (the same age as the youngest soldier killed in action) were found.

The night arrived. The boys were kitted out with CCF ponchos, sleeping kit and weapons. We had original helmets, a gas mask and a Lee Enfield rifle to add authentic flavour.

Dusk fell and the atmosphere was terrific. We were experiencing what it was to be on "stand to" - in readiness for an enemy attack - and the view across the fields to No Man's Land was suitably gloomy.

After the boys stood down, a fire was lit in a brazier and bully beef and hard biscuit rations passed round. The boys told stories, sang songs and played cards, instinctively replicating the boredom and ways of passing time in the trenches without any prompting.

Then, at 2300, the head unleashed his surprise. With the bursar, he had laid fireworks in No Man's Land. The rockets went off like whizz-bangs. The boys manned their weapons. Three of them were detailed to go into No Man's Land to investigate. For some minutes the rockets exploded above us and lit up the ground and the trench with an eerie light.

The fireworks ceased and silence fell. We heard tales of the Somme the night before July 1, 1916, and a sentry duty rota was established. All was well until 0300 when the downpour started, flooding the trenches and adding another slice of wartime reality.

Rain, boredom and excitement: enough for one night and perhaps just enough to show pupils something of life in the trenches.

As a teaching and learning tool, building and sleeping in our very own trench was a unique experience that Shiplake pupils will never forget. It has certainly gone some way to answering that question: "Sir, what was it like in the trenches?"

Dr Toby Purser is head of history and teaching and learning at Shiplake College in Oxfordshire, and the author of GCSE and A-level textbooks.

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