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Photo: Wessex Archaeology

One hundred years ago, thousands of British and Australian troops trained with shovels and explosives along a miles-long network of trenches in the Salisbury Plain. They were learning the roles of sappers and miners and soldiers as they prepared for the fight of their lives on the Western Front of World War I.

Now some 8 kilometers of the former training tunnel network at Larkhill have been excavated by archaeologists. It has yielded a picture of the past – even some of the signatures of heroes and deserters who left their mark on history, according to the Wessex Archaeology firm.

“This is the first time anyone has found and excavated tunnels used to train the sappers and miners before they were deployed overseas,” said Martin Brown, a consultant to the Army Basing Project. “West have found them as part of the largest single investigation of First World War training trenches anywhere in the world.”

The trenches were found during digging in advance of new planned housing for the military at the Larkhill site.

The archaeologists found dugouts, underground mines, counter-mines and listening posts. The training to dig and blow up German tunnels underneath no man’s land was underway beginning in 1915, until the end of the war in 1918.

The archaeologists said the kind of training was what enabled the first underground explosions to kick off the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and also the Battle of Messines on June 7, 1917.

The archaeologists had to work alongside bomb disposal specialists, since some grenades used in training were still live, even after a century out in the elements, they said.

Also found were a trove of signatures. A chalk plaque included the names of about 100 soldiers from the Australian Bombers who trained at Larkhill before crossing the English Channel to battle the Germans.

Of note is one particular inscription. The name is Private Lawrence Carthage Weathers. The young soldier would go on to win the Victoria Cross for his actions during the Battle of Mount Saint-Quentin, during which he captured guns and 180 prisoners from a German machine-gun trench.

“The chalk plaque and the large number of grenade fragments found show that Weathers learned his deadly skills here, on our site,” said Brown. “He was one of the thousands who learned soldiering at Larkhill.”

(Weathers would never learn he had been given the Victoria Cross. He was killed later that same month, during an artillery barrage).

“Larkhill has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our Wessex Archaeology teams, said Si Cleggett, the project manager for Wessex. “It has been a humbling experience for archaeologists to stand and read the names of young soldier in the very spaces they occupied before embarkation to the horrors of the trenches.”

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