24HR TRENCH: Mark Barnes spends the day with the author – Andy Robertshaw

I’m not quite sure how best to describe Andy Robertshaw. He might prefer historian, writer, educator, documentary maker, museum director or archaeologist; I am really not sure. You might have seen him on the telly excavating trenches or you may have listened to one of his fast paced talks at a branch of the WFA. You might even have noticed him leading our boys over the top in the climatic battle scene at the end of War Horse, for which he was the historical advisor; trying hard to keep the ever imaginative Mr Spielberg on the straight and narrow.

All I can say is the bloke always seems to be doing something interesting and is very keen to get people involved. The aim is to get everyone, especially the young, learning and thinking for themselves and discovering our past without having it all interpreted for them.

The purpose of the WHO visit to Surrey was to see a really impressive trench system constructed to create a full twenty-four hours in the life of a platoon living in a section of the front line near the Menin Road with all the joys of the weather, the fear, the critters, the Huns and the boredom. I’m sure you’ll think of the other things that go with it. This is a really fantastic idea and the result is a book which gets down to the minutiae of trench living from the quiet moment for a poo, the night time colours, the noise, the grub and the joys of foot inspection. The photography is atmospheric and the captions are detailed. The book even comes with a forward from our old chum Peter Hart, who we can hear saying “Oi you! Less of the old!”

The trench system was manned for our visit by the excellent chaps of the Kings Liverpool Regiment who were really helpful and ready to ask any questions we had.  We were guided round by Andy’s colleague Steve Roberts who pointed out the flooded duckboards and the real barbed wire. There were no fake bits and everything was authentic. The only thing out of place was the low flying jets in and out of Gatwick which finished at 2am and started up again at six. There was a machine gun position which had been moved somewhat forward from the norm for the sake of the display. This was the province of a couple of chaps from the Machine Gun Corps and the Vickers gun on show came with an ultra rare Sangster Emergency Tripod which is only one of four in the UK.

The day was completed with excellent nosh provided by our hosts. We had to fight a horde of wasps for the cakes, but they weren’t interested in the barbequed sausages and burgers, which is just as well!

Andy has big plans for the future, including a follow up to this project – 24HR Battle, following a similar scenario, but based on the Kaiser’s Battle, the German offensive of 1918, when a British platoon would stand and fight, with some men dying, some surviving, some being captured and some inevitably retreating. It sounds fascinating. Meanwhile he continues to work on further archaeological projects on the Western Front and somehow finds time to run the Royal Logistics Corps Museum.

 Mark Barnes

24HR Trench by Andrew Robertshaw is published by the History Press in softback, priced £14.99.   ISBN: 978 0 7524 7667 4

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.