Echoes of the past on Yorkshire’s own ‘Western Front’

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It was largely fought overseas but the Great War also left scars on the British landscape. Andrew Robinson reports.

THE physical reminders are all around us, some familiar and others hidden, neglected and derelict.

Most villages have their war memorials but less well known are former training trenches and camps which are now being mapped by English Heritage.

In Yorkshire, Western Front-style practice trenches survive at Redmires Reservoir, near Sheffield, and at Breary Banks, North Yorkshire, where a stone memorial marks the sacrifice of over 500 Leeds Pals who died on the Somme.

At Redmires, features dug by the Sheffield City Battalion during infantry training can still be seen and there are moves to preserve the site.

Professor Richard Morris, of Huddersfield University, says aerial photography is helping to reveal hidden former training trenches which are fairly common, though often forgotten because they were created in remote locations.

“During the Great War, they built whole stretches of the front in England, in order to train troops before they went overseas,” said Professor Morris.

There is also evidence of other transformations to the landscape.

The grounds of Belton House in Lincolnshire – close to the East Coast main line – were the site for an enormous city of huts, the size of which almost defies belief, according to Professor Morris.

The war in the air, which was in its infancy in 1914, also left its mark in Yorkshire.

Professor Morris is re-examining the remains of Great War airfields in Tadcaster and Redcar as he works on a new biography of the engineer Barnes Wallis, whose early career included a period as a designer at a once-vast but now vanished Great War airship station in East Yorkshire.

In 1915, 1,000 acres of farmland near Howden in the East Riding were acquired by the Admiralty for construction of a Royal Navy airship station. A massive complex – including enormous sheds – became the base for airships that were principally used for convoy duty. After the war, the site was mothballed, but came back to life in the 1920s when the Government decided to revive the development of airships. Howden was the site for the construction of the R100 – with Barnes Wallis as chief designer.

Based at Howden for three years, he was responsible for the creation of an airship that incorporated many innovative features. For example, the concept of colour-coded wiring was earlier invented by Barnes Wallis during the development of the R80, an airship that he designed at Barrow, and which first flew in 1920.

A century after the war’s outbreak, English Heritage, along with the Council for British Archaeology, are working to catalogue for the first time the ‘colossal footprint’ that the war left on England’s buildings, and landscapes and coastal waters.

“This work is crucial in documenting and preserving these little-known or forgotten historic sites for future generations,” said an English Heritage spokesman.

On the Yorkshire coast, English Heritage is gathering information on the various First World War pillboxes, or blockhouses, which are often mistakenly thought to date from the Second World War.

One such infantry blockhouse can be found at Spurn Point at a site which is now being lost to coastal erosion.

English Heritage is also investigating Catterick in the First World War. A new divisional camp for 40,000 men was built using 2,000 huts and it became known as the ‘Aldershot of the North’.

And, over the next four years, English Heritage is aiming to give protected listed status to hundreds of war memorials across the country.

• For details of English Heritage’s Home Front Legacy project go to www.english-heritage.org.uk