Digging the Trenches

The Archaeology of the Western Front

Andrew Robertshaw & David Kenyon

Pen & Sword, 2014

The archaeology of the First World War is of course, relatively speaking, a very new strand of archaeology. However whilst some archaeological digs struggle to find any remnants of an event or settlement, on the western front even the casual visitor can barely walk far before stumbling across the physical detritus of the war, from shrapnel balls or bullets, to equipment and unexploded shells. Yet much of the remains of the war still lay buried beneath the ground. After the war many dugouts and trench systems were backfilled, and the ground is the resting place of tens of thousands of soldiers whose bodies were never recovered or whose graves were lost.

‘Digging the Trenches’ examines the archaeology of the war using the authors’ own experiences of digs they have worked on as case studies – Robertshaw and Kenyon both being pretty well-known for their numerous First World War projects, not least Robertshaw’s infamous back garden trench system.

The authors explain the evolution of trench-building on the western front, as well as life in the trenches and how the items they have found can shed light on the life of the soldiers. Fighting and dying in the trenches also impacts on the archaeology due to the nature of the weapons (e.g. artillery) and the way in which men were buried. First World War archaeology also differs from other periods in that you cannot always assume that what is at the bottom is the oldest layer. Trenches were dug, re-dug, and backfilled, and the explosions of shells of course displaced and churned up the ground as well as the objects and remains within it.

The last chapter examines four cases where human remains were found on a dig and the process of excavating and trying to identify the men. These case studies highlight the depth of information that can potentially be gathered from the fallen, and make for fascinating reading.

The book focuses solely on the western front so does not examine the archaeology of other fronts. This 2014 edition is an update of the original 2008 publication but does not make mention of more recent developments such as the Fromelles excavation or La Boisselle project, although these were not digs that the authors were involved in.

This is not an academic archaeology book and is presented in a very accessible, interesting, and readable way, with superb accompanying illustrations.

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Digging the Trenches: The Archaeology of the Western Front