As the centenary of the Great War approaches new sites are beginning to open up on the battlefields in Belgium and France. At Zonnebeke the Passchendaele Memorial Museum will officially open a new wing to their museum displaying more than 5,000 objects and an extensive system of reconstructed trenches.
In a war dominated by trenches modern visitors to the battlefields of Flanders often find it hard to imagine them on the clean and tidy landscape they see today, and while an example of a post-war trench museum can be seen at Hill 62, reconstructed German trenches at Bayernwald and concrete Belgian trenches at Dixsmuide, this new set of trenches has a different approach.
I was lucky to get a preview of the trenches last summer and they ended up being featured in the Channel 5 documentary WW1 Tunnels of Death we were filming at that time. When connected to the new museum this trench experience will begin in some early war German trenches with an infantry shelter and shallow dugout. These will then progress into later war German trenches with fire-steps a larger shelter and a very ‘permanent’ feel to them. Seamlessly you then walk into the British trenches which have been modelled on mid-war trenches as were seen in the Ypres Salient in 1915-17 between the Second and Third Battles. They have duck-boards suspended on inverted A-frames, elephant iron supports to the walls and well defined fire bays and infantry shelters. You finally emerge from the British positions via a communication trench.
The trenches are not built on the mere whim of the museum but are essentially a form of experimental archaeology; staff members with battlefield archaeology experience spent some time working on them, and much of the design and form was based on wartime manuals or engineer drawings found in War Diaries at the National Archives. In that respect they represent the first historically correct attempt to re-create a Great War trench system.
The new version of the Passchendaele Museum and the trench system will open on Saturday 13 July 2013.