Kurt Bayer

Kurt Bayer is an APNZ reporter based in Christchurch.

Archaeologists uncover practice WW1 battlefield

Seven hundred New Zealanders died in two days of fighting for the Belgian town of Messines in June 1917. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Seven hundred New Zealanders died in two days of fighting for the Belgian town of Messines in June 1917. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

A practice battlefield built by German prisoners of war under New Zealand riflepoint is being uncovered by archaeologists in the UK.

A scale model of the opposing lines of the Battle of Messines - New Zealand's first significant engagement of World War I - was created in an English field for the education of Allied troops.

In June 1917, soldiers from the New Zealand Rifle Brigade held off stiff resistance from German forces in the Belgian town, near the French border, to take control of a ridge regarded as strategically important in setting up the later assault on Passchendaele.

Within a few hours, the Kiwis had managed to secure the town.

Their efforts were deemed a rousing success, despite the deaths of 700 New Zealanders.

On their return to the UK from the Western Front, troops sketched out in minute detail replica trenches, terrain, contours, and obstacles before it was rendered in concrete.

They used German POWs to do the hard labour and make small-scale reconstructions of Messines' buildings, including its church, railway lines, and roads.

The mock-up was then used as a training aid for soldiers coming through Brocton Camp in Staffordshire.

The living model was also a large scale reminder of the landmark engagement, which paved the way for the more famous third battle of Ypres the following month.

Now a dig will start next week to uncover the training ground, long since overgrown and forgotten, and document what is the only example of its kind left in the UK.

Funded by Natural England, the local Staffordshire County Council will use a laser-scanning device to make a 3D computer model before re-covering the Cannock Chase site next month.

"The idea to build a scale model was a stroke of genius and undoubtedly played a huge role in preventing the deaths of thousands of more men," councillor Philip Atkins, county council leader told the Daily Mail.

"We see ourselves very much as custodians of the land and of the memories it holds, and this is a wonderful opportunity to bring the site back to life.

"Due to the location, scale and fragile nature of the model it is impossible for it to be moved or left uncovered, but for a brief moment in time we all be able to share with the nation, memories of a piece of Staffordshire which helped change the course of history."

- APNZ

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