19 May 2022

Digging up war-time history in a field in County Derry

Community engagement was key to archaeological dig.

We stand around a neatly dug rectangle of land. The rain is hammering in horizontally off the Atlantic. A glance towards it shows it to be heaving, the waves are tumultuous.

Dr Heather Montgomery has to shout to be heard over the wind.

“This is the reality of frontline archaeology,” she tells us.

The Cadet Training Centre at Magilligan is the centre of a major archaeological excavation being undertaken by Queen’s University’s Centre for Community Archaeology (CCA).

Commissioned by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO), the project is seeking to connect local people with the First World War heritage landscape in their area.

It hopes to generate increased levels of knowledge and awareness about the defence heritage resource within Magilligan Training Estate though community-based archaeology fieldwork.

Estate manager Tony said community engagement is key to the process.

He said: “It was important to explore the military history at Magilligan and it offers a unique opportunity to get local schools and community groups involved in the project.”

Dr Montgomery, who is leading the project, is also keen to see local community and schools involved and hopes to build on the work done at another training centre.

She said: “If we’re lucky, this will be comparable to Ballykinler. A Ministry of Defence (MoD ) audit was undertaken last year, and this is one of the areas that was identified as being of elevated historic reference.

“Primarily because it was so obvious, but also because it was very close to the camp and everything else was accessible if we decided to undertake a community archaeology project.

“The children have been brilliant, we’ve loved it. We’ve done different projects with them.

“We introduce them to pre-history, Iron Age, Bronze Age artefacts and then we bring them right up to why we are here and show them artefacts related to that.

“And obviously they love the excavation aspect where they get the opportunity to get in and get digging, so they’ve all loved it.”
The team are currently excavating two trenches.

One is on the edge of some woodland, ruthlessly exposed to elements.

Wind and rain have postponed the school visits for now, but this is the site the team have been using for the community engagement.

In the shelter of the trees lies a second trench, where cadets would have trained for the frontline before being deployed to the battlefields of France.

Two archaeologists busy themselves with excavation as Dr Montgomery explains the aims of the project.

“A small area can tell you a huge amount,” she explains.

“What we were hoping to find was some sort of complex training system with something relevant to 1918, where you would have had a front line, an observation line and reserve lines.

“Or a compacted area that would have enabled recruits to basically learn how to live in the trenches.

“A lot of the early parts of it were spade digging and learning how to work on the art of cover and protection.

“We hoped at Ballykinler initially to find the evolution of trench warfare and we were lucky to develop that narrative, so we’re trying to see if we can do something similar here.”

At the time of World War I, Irish soldiers were made to endure an assumption that they had little or no training in trench warfare before they were sent to the frontline.

Dr Montgomery says the work done here and at other sites across the island is helping to debunk that myth.

“There is a lot of historic record that tells us that the Irish weren’t that well trained, that they were seen as volunteers - a bunch of rabbles.

“There are a few narratives that say we didn’t even dig a hole in the ground here for trench training and practice.”

“That has some aspects of colonial or historic regimental bias and a lack of faith in Kitchener’s new army.

“Realistically, the whole of Ireland has evidence of this training landscape. Some is very basic, some is very innovative and identical to what you would find in England, Scotland or Wales.

“To say that they didn’t so much as dig a trench in the ground is incorrect, which we have found out through working in Ballykinler and other locations where this happened.

“I’m not saying they went there 100% prepared but, in some cases, it was progressive and very innovative.”

Dr Montgomery does admit that the German army were much more advanced in their trench warfare training, with more complex structures.

“The Germans were a lot better at doing it at the start,” she says. “They’d already dug in quite a bit. They had strong fortifications, a lot more concrete, it was a lot more robust and on higher ground.

“They definitely were ahead of the game as far as trenching was concerned, at that point.”

The children that have been coming out to the site understandably see archaeology as the practice of digging things up.

Dr Montgomery is quick to point out that this dig is slightly different, but it is a challenge she approaches with relish.

“This is right up my street, it’s part of my research interest and I absolutely love the fact that we’re allowed – privileged - to be able to do this.

“You have places like Downpatrick Cathedral where you’re getting amazing finds coming out, early Christian medieval stuff, but here, it’s a different type of job.

“This is an Area of Specific Scientific Interest (ASSI) protected area, so we’re lucky to have the opportunity to be here, let alone be digging something I’m quite passionate about.

“It’s exciting for me to find out what remains in the ground here as opposed to what is envisioned, with nothing recorded about it.”

While the work will be reported to the MoD and help to inform future management and landscape development, the crux of the project is community engagement.

Access to the 1000-hectare site has been limited and in commissioning the work, the DIO has provided an opportunity for that engagement.

Dr Montgomery says: “It’s integral to the project and one of its main aims.

“This landscape, as you can imagine, is not something that has been open to the public, so it’s a very important aspect to the process that we’re able to engage with local people.”

“It’s been a great opportunity to work with the local community that have never had that chance to be involved with the landscape here.”

As I left the site, a second team of archaeologists were preparing to head out to relieve their colleagues on the front line and prepare to suffer for their art.

Dr Montgomery did voice some sympathy: “We do have deadlines to meet, but we’ll not have anyone getting hypothermia.”

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