With the World War One centennial now entering into its second year, now seems like a good time to highlight one of Midway Village Museum’s most immersive pieces for engaging the public in the history of the war: the on-site trench.
In 2013, Midway Museum began its spring WWI Days living history event. Early on in the planning for this event, the re-enactors who partner with the Museum asked permission to construct a permanent trench addition on-site to use during the event. After investing over 2,000 hours of labor, the trench now includes over 200 feet of reproduction trench line made up of both a larger front-line trench network as well as a smaller communications trench. It serves double duty for the Museum’s WWI and WWII Days events (the latter held each September) and provides a setting for re-enactors to display objects and conduct field battles. Some re-enactors even go full immersion and live in the trenches during the events!
The trenches are dug 6 feet deep and then built up with clay, wooden supports and sandbags. Duck boards are utilized to provide a solid footing to walk upon, and these must be repaired or replaced every year due to submersion in water and ice. Three bunkers include amenities such as bunk beds and phone wire installations. There are several volunteer events each year to ensure that the bunkers remain sound and secure against the elements and to maintain the security and integrity of the trench walls.
By looking at aerial photographs from WWI from the collection of the Imperial War Museum, you can truly appreciate the details which might be overlooked while walking through the reproduction trenches. For example, the trenches are constructed in a zig-zag pattern. This was done to make the trenches more defensible. If artillery fire should score a direct hit on the trench, the blast radius could only extend as far as the nearest zig-zag, thereby mitigating the destruction. As well, if the trench were overrun by the enemy, the curves in the trenches would offer protection for the occupants and make it easier to reclaim the lost ground.
The landscape, particularly during the April event, serves very well as a visual likeness of the Western Front. Much of the vegetation in the field is stripped away, while spring has not yet brought an abundance of green to the site. The Western Front of WWI came to be described as a lunar landscape, for the impact of warfare could very quickly take a vibrant, living landscape and transform it into a muddy, lifeless, crater-filled terrain. Below are before-and-after photos from the Battle of Passchendaele, fought between 31 July and 6 November 1917 near the Belgian city of Ypres.
Conditions in the reproduction trenches also mimic those from the Western Front. April rains, supplemented by the melting of winter snowfall, frequently causes the trenches at Midway to flood. To counter this and make the trenches safe and accessible to re-enactors and visitors, a drainage sump was installed this year to supplement electric pumps in removing the accumulated water. WWI armies also used drainage ditches, pumps and good old-fashioned buckets to keep water out of their trenches, but there were rare instances where the elements proved too aggressive in the short-term for soldiers to keep their trenches dry and clear.
The reproduction trenches at Midway Village continue to be a work-in-progress. A new set of opposing trench works have begun on the east side of the field, and a new Christmas in the Trenches event will be held this December to commemorate the Christmas Truce of 1914 and give a portrayal of how soldiers celebrated the holiday while in the trenches, so be sure to keep an eye out for opportunities to take advantage of this expansive and immersive resource!
Upcoming events include:
September 26-27, 2015, World War II Days
December 5, 2015, Christmas in the Trenches: A Re-enactment of the 1914 World War I Christmas Truce.
For more information go to www.midwayvillage.com