As someone with a keen interest in WW1 or The Great War, I’ve written before on my visits to the Western Front in France and Belgium. Not many people know that there are still trenches in England and conveniently only about 15 miles from where I live.
I’ve wanted to visit them since the 1990’s but never got round to visiting them and though there is a nearby carpark, I always like to do things the old fashioned way which invariably takes longer but I think makes for a better experience and so on last week I took an entirely deserted train to the small market town of Berkhamsted and with no maps except what was in my head, I set off through farmlands, woods and common land to a hill-top where hopefully I would find what I was looking for.
On 28 September 1914 troops from the Inns of Court Officers’ Training Corps, nick-named The Devil’s Own, arrived in Berkhamsted to train before heading for the battlefields of northern France.
During the course of WWI, 12,000 troops passed through the training camp at Berkhamsted. They lived in a tented camp near the station, paraded on what is now called Kitchener’s Field and trained on Berkhamsted and Northchurch commons and in the surrounding countryside. Troops from the UK and abroad spent several months in Berkhamsted in intensive training, building skills and character, before being commissioned into other regiments.
The Inns of Courts Oficers Training Corps dug 13 miles of linear trenches, primarily as preparation for the real thing on the Western Front but also as part of fitness training for these young volunteers, many of which were barely out of school. The trenches were also to provide valuable experience in modern trench layouts, based on the real trenches in France and from hard lessons that were already being learned there. The soil here is very difficult to dig trenches in, a big similarity with those 175 miles away in mainland Europe which no doubt stood the men in good stead if such a thing were possible.
The Inns of Court Officers Training Corps provided basic and officer training at Berkhamsted. The subjects practiced were route marching, map reading, digging trenches, wiring, bombing, shooting, field tactics and strategy which took the form of complete battalion exercises in open warfare. Special night operations were also practiced here in addition to the usual lectures, which covered a whole range of subjects from leadership, billeting, welfare and trench sanitation.
The impact on the small town of about 7,500 was huge and there was strong respect and appreciation between local residents and the Corps. For many of the young men, Berkhamsted was their last “home” before the horrors of the Western Front. Tragically by 1918, nearly half of all trainees had become casualties with 2,147 of them killed.
Over the years most of the trenches have been neglected, overgrown or even deliberately filled in by the local golf course in the 1970’s. Recently however a team of volunteers from the Commons Project and Chiltern Society mapped the location of the best preserved trenches and cleared away the foliage that was covering them and somewhat restored their appearance.
I knew I was on the right track when I found a field that was actually signposted as being Kitcheners Field and you can see from my photo below the similarities of the hill and woods to the field camp in 1914.
I wondered along the lower side of the field, passing some Buddhist Monks who were heading in the opposite direction and stopped for a moment amongst some horses before heading through a farm and up the hill into the woods.
As is my habit, I found the trenches at my first time of trying which wasn’t too much of a surprise though I’ve read of others looking for them repeatedly and getting nowhere!
It was a little eerie walking through them and going over the top. I can confirm that after nearly 110 years it would still be difficult to climb in and out of them and they are very reminiscent of those I’ve seen where the war was actually fought.
There is a modern information board too which sets the scene nicely and having seen them I headed off to where I knew there was a WW1 memorial.
The Inns of Court Oficers Training Corps was originally part of the London Territorial Force and consisted mainly of men connected with the Law courts in the City of London such as Lincolns Inn, Temple and establishments around The Strand. The Corps came to Berkhamsted on 28th September 1914 and did not leave until June 1919 during which time 14,000 men passed through the Corps with over 11,000 of them winning commissions. Three officers were awarded Victoria Crosses along with countless other decorations. A total of 2,147 men lost their lives and are commemorated by the lonely memorial, which stands on the at the road junction from Frithsden Road into Berkhamsted.
Despite its location in a mixture of woodland and golf course, it’s still a moving if lonely monument. The memorial also makes mention that Colonel E.R.L Errington’s ashes were placed nearby. His official history of the Corps, written in the 1920’s offers a great insight.
“The situation of our camp at Berkhamsted was ideal, pitched in the field on the north side of the station and sloping gently up to Berkhamsted Place. The Squadron, both men and horses, were in the Brewery. Lord Brownlow placed at our disposal his private waiting-room at the station and also a covered-in shelter, both of which were used for Quartermaster’s office and stores. The proximity of the station did away with all transport difficulties. On the west side, we had ample room for expansion, and on the east side another large field, subsequently given the name of “Kitchener’s Field”, made an admirable drill ground. The surrounding country was the best imaginable for training, being so varied … To the north lay the big common, later intersected by some 13,000 yards of trenches, then Ashridge Park, undulating and beautifully timbered, placed entirely at our disposal by Lord Brownlow, and so away to the open downland of the Chiltern Hills. To the south, hilly and enclosed land leading to Hawridge and Cholesbury Commons. To the east, farms and enclosures admirably adapted for night operations; and to the west the private grounds of Rossway and Champneys, always open to us; with woods, farms and enclosures to and beyond Tring. We went where we liked, and did what we liked. The big landowner, the small landowner, and the farmer were all equally ready to help. If there was any trouble, Major Mead at once got on his horse, rode over, and smoothed things out. For the squadron, long treks without touching a road, wide movements, distant reconnaissance; for the infantry, wood fighting, canal crossings, river crossings, big fights on the open commons and downs, local fighting among the enclosures, every form of open training was available. In the neighbouring villages, Nettleden, Little Gaddesden, Aldbury, Ashley Green, Bovingdon, the awakened villager turned to sleep again with greater security when he realised that the outburst of firing, and the swift rush of feet through the village street, betokened nothing more than a night raid of the Devil’s Own… As soon as we moved into billets the Rector, Mr Hart Davies, placed the Court House at our disposal for an Orderly Room … Through the kindness of Lady Brownlow we were able to begin by using her hospital at Ashridge.”
My curiosity piqued I headed back through the woods in a different direction; I had more historical sights I wanted to find but before then I thought I might look for some of the non-restored trenches, not being one to go with the crowds… as if there are ever crowds here.
Just a few minutes walk from a woodland trail I found plenty and took my photo in some sort of shell-hole.
If you’ve enjoyed this post you can find plenty of other WW1 articles, not least because I wrote a WW1 history book which was published by a leading publishers in London. You can find it in Paperback on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and various retails establishments as well as find it on Kindle and iBooks too.