Training is always necessary when going to war, and this was especially so the generation that fought the First World War, exposed as they were to a new kind of combat.
And prepare for it they did. The evidence of this is actually visible at many sites around the UK, with evidence of those that have survived as archaeological earthworks visible at some trench sites such as those around Redmires Reservoir in Sheffield, Breary Banks in Yorkshire and others in Shropshire, Northumberland, plus grassy areas around London such as Hampstead Heath, and right down the southern parts of the country to places such as Bovington in Dorset.
There are also some remains of trench sites that can be seen as some Armed Forces bases such as RAF Halton, near Wendover in Buckinghamshire.
Evidence, in this case, means lines in the ground - leftovers from training trenches that were set up to prepare First World War soldiers before they went into combat overseas, usually in France or Belgium.
The documentary series ‘The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century’ describes being in the trenches of the Western Front as like entering another world, and visiting training trenches can certainly provide a glimpse into this strange world.
One of the best places to do this is at a place called Pullingshill Wood, which is just off the Marlow Common road, near Bovingdon Green outside Marlow, in Buckinghamshire.
A visit there reveals a confusing network of channels still left etched in the ground. The whole area is now covered in trees, so to get a sense of its sheer scale, walking into and then around it is necessary.
There is also a notice board containing useful and interesting information.
Emblazoned with “First World War Training Trenches” and “Lest we forget” at the top, the board puts the site in its proper historical context.
Not only does it explain the circumstances surrounding the construction and use of the trench network, it also notes that the training trenches in the Pullingshill Wood site are the best, that is the most complete, set of trenches from the era of the Great War.
“Most complete” in this instance means a total of 1,400 metres of trench lines snaking and winding their way over six acres of ground. It is truly impressive in its scale though, as mentioned, the thick tree cover means this cannot be fully appreciated without one walking through and around it.
One line points out that in the construction of the trenches:
“The ‘front line’ was likely to have been constructed on the west side.”
This is an indication of just how much interpretation there is in figuring out how the site was used during the war - with a mock front line for soldiers to understand trench warfare, although it would not perhaps have prepared them for the full horrors they faced once they were in the real trenches on the real front line.
What can be clearly observed is that there are actually two trench networks, one on the east side and one on the west.
One could reasonably wonder if the label ‘REAR LINES’ near the section of the map with the eastern section indicates that this was meant to have been the back half of a trench system. Meanwhile, the ‘FRONT LINE OBSERVATON TRENCHES’ label over the western network might be interpreted as the front portion of what was meant to be a larger trench system.
Yet there is sap towards the front of the eastern section, a feature that would normally have jutted out towards or into no man’s land (they were often used as advanced listening posts, or as jumping off points for troops going on the attack.) There are also dotted lines indicating arcs of fire from machine gun positions, which also indicate this was instead another trench network of its own.
The website ‘The Long, Long Trail’ notes below a diagram of a more textbook-looking trench that soldiers and officers would have probably preferred a system more like that on the western side – something more regular, rectangular and easier to understand and orient oneself within.
This is what the western network on the left-hand side of the map is like, with its clearer front line, support line, or lines, and communication trenches running between them.
Yet anyone looking at old pictures from, say, the Battle of Passchendaele, will have noticed soldiers using not only irregular trench lines, but mere shell holes joined together into improvised defensive positions.
Passchendaele is in Flanders, where there is a high water table that made digging regular trench lines difficult or impossible. It is therefore easy to see how specific local conditions like this would have forced those trying to dig trenches to adapt and create more irregular trenches, or defensive positions.
Whatever the exact details of the eastern side of the trench system, with its more irregular pattern of loops of trenches joined together, it must have been more useful for practicing and preparing for service in the kinds of trench lines seen at places like Passchendaele.
Of course, for anyone who takes time to study the map above, it is worth noting that the more improvisatory-looking nature of the trenches on the eastern side does not mean they are haphazard. On the contrary, the crisscrossing arcs of fire from its various machine-gun positions (the ‘MGs’ on the board’s map) indicate it, and its real-life equivalents in France and Belgium, must have been well thought out.
Though, from the perspective of someone looking to immerse themselves in the world we tend to picture when we think of the First World War (i.e. that of clear lines etched across the landscape), the western network is a better fit.
Dropping into and walking along its trench lines at a crouch gives a real sense of the disorientation soldiers could have experienced when those trench walls were two metres high, as they would have been at the time.
This in turn makes it easy to understand just how useful training trenches would have been for helping soldiers to get a sense of standard trench geography: a jagged or saw-toothed front line, designed as such to prevent artillery shell blasts or enemy machine-gun fire spreading all the way along it; then communication trenches snaking back to either support or supervision trenches running parallel in the rear; and the various indentations in the earth encountered along the way – a dugout here, a command post there, a latrine over there. Though in the latter case, the smell probably would have given away its purpose and location.
The First World War of course did not start out with trenches. Like most other conflicts before it, it opened as a war of movement.
But the equally high level of deadly firepower on each side soon brought stalemate and the need to dig in, to take refuge in the ground. Towards the end of 1914, trench lines sprung up across the Western Front, where they remained for much of the rest of the war.
This larger historical backdrop lines up with the little bits of information available about the area.
In an online piece entitled ‘Marlow’s WW1 Training Trenches’, the Marlow Society combs through archives of the Bucks Free Press. They, and the Pullingshill Wood information board, give us glimpses into who was in the area, when, and what they might have been doing.
The training trenches appear to have been built in 1915 by members of the 3rd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. The 4th Battalion also soon arrived, in June of 1915, and according to the quote from the Bucks Free Press on the Marlow Society’s page, they were soon busy as well:
"During the week the men have been busily involved in their training. The range at Quarry Woods has been used for firing parties nearly every morning and trench digging, and field exercises have been carried out in the woods to the north of the town.”
The 3rd Battalion left the area to go into active service in late July that year, being replaced by members of the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps.) One images they, and the 2,000 Royal Engineers who arrived in December 1915, both made use of the training trenches as well.
These little historical details combined with a walk around the training trenches both serve as a poignant reminder of the one in every four infantrymen who went on to die serving on the Western Front.
And it is this, even more than the scale of the network, that stays with you after you leave it behind.
Cover image: Greg Allwood.