In the heart of Staffordshire’s Cannock Chase lies a tangible reminder of the area’s use as a ^ training ground in the First World War. For there, hidden for generations, lies a scale model of the Belgian town of Messines, the scene of the great British offensive in June 1917. Lee Dent and Richard Pursehouse reveal the story behind the model and the recent investigative excavations.
Take a look at any map of Great Britain, locate the county of Staffordshire and you will find Cannock Chase clearly marked. Surrounding this area you will find the towns and villages of Stafford, Cannock, Rugeley, Hednesford and Brocton: one place that you will not find is Messines.
However, in one respect, ‘Messines’ is there, its cobbled streets, brick houses, church and windmill lie all but forgotten, buried since it lost its long battle with nature. The foundations of the ‘village’ were laid down in early 1918 and had been virtually completed by May of that year when it was ready to play its part in instructing men in the art of war. The men, newly arrived drafts of reinforcements from New Zealand, would no doubt have looked upon the ‘village’ with a sense of pride — as before them in minute detail lay a model, its Lilliputian dimensions an exact replica of the Belgian village of Messines, the scene of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade’s greatest triumph on the Western Front.
The 5th (Reserve) Battalion New Zealand Rifle Brigade moved to Brocton Camp, one of two camps (the other being Rugeley) on Cannock Chase, on 27 September 1917. Some 1,925 men under the command of Major Rawdon St. J. Beere arrived from Tidworth in Wiltshire; they joined men of the 27th Reinforcements, who had already arrived ten days earlier via Liverpool on His Majesty’s New Zealand Transport Athenic. In January 1918 the Reserve Battalion was renamed the 5th (Reserve) Battalion, consolidating its position within the Brigade, with the camp becoming known as the New Zealand Rifle Brigade Reserve Depot.
It is probable that around this time the decision was taken to build a model of Messines. Constructed in concrete, its buildings were bricks or shaped stone blocks with key features such as the church and windmill being represented.
Also incorporated were roads and the extensive German trench systems that had occupied the ridge in and around the real village in Belgium. The model had been constructed by the New Zealanders using German labour from the nearby prisoner of war camp in Brocton Coppice.
The effectiveness of large-scale terrain models for the instruction of troops before battles such as Vimy Ridge, Messines and Passchendaele had been proven. Lieutenant-Colonel J.G. Roache DSO had commanded the 1st Battalion New Zealand Rifle Brigade at Messines; he would have been familiar with II ANZAC Corps’ terrain model near Romarin in Belgium during May/June of 1917. As commander of the Brigade’s Reserve Depot he was able to authorise and oversee the construction of the model.
Messines, a location so important to the brigade, would have imbued a sense of pride in those being instructed.
Its relevance to the brigade would have been further emphasised by this ‘training aid’ being located in ‘H’ Lines of Brocton Camp — the barrack area of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade — and not in the areas of this camp usually associated with training.
The New Zealanders departed Brocton camp on 14 June 1919. The final act by Lieutenant-Colonel Shepherd (the last Depot Commander) was to entrust the ‘Messines’ model to Major-General R. Wanlass O’Gowan, Commander of the Cannock Chase Reserve Centre, which was the administrative body overseeing both Brocton and Rugeley camps.
In turn, Cannock Chase Reserve Centre closed on 7 February 1920, and the camps began to be dismantled. Everything that was salvable was auctioned» off. The auction sales were to continue into 1921 and it would appear that the ‘Messines’ model was simply destined to be forgotten by the military authorities. It soon began to show signs of neglect, with weeds gradually taking hold of much of the model. On Saturday, 15 October 1921, learning of the deterioration, the Stafford YMCA, Scouts and Stafford Wolf Cubs, spent the day cleaning the model.
Vacated by the military authorities, usage of the land eventually reverted back to the Anson family, the owners of the Shugborough estate. Although the model was back to its former glory, its fate was sealed; the sale of the last huts from Brocton Camp meant the model lost its protective shield. Increased exposure to the elements subjected the concrete to more damage, with weeds once again taking hold.
In April 1931 an article in the local Express and Star newspaper outlined the plight of the model. The author, simply known as ‘Pitman’, described its neglected state, but confirmed that «lots of the works remain as sound as first laid down». Vandalism, it seems, is not a modern phenomenon as there were «signs that despoilers have been at work on the model». Pitman lamented, «it is feared that in another few years this relic of wartime will be gone».
This, it appears, was enough to spur a local resident into action. An ex-Grenadier Guardsman — Ernest Groucott, aged 70 — had, by 1932, taken it upon himself to supervise the ‘restoration’ of the model. He had seen the model constructed by the New Zealanders, as he had been engaged in driving officers between the camp and local railway stations. As the camp began to close down he became «caretaker of the hutments» until finally his services were no longer required.
Living nearby, he had become increasingly concerned at the level of deterioration of the ‘Messines’ model. Ernest began the ‘restoration’ and was joined in his task by a group of young men from Hednesford, who helped clear the area. Due to the newspaper’s coverage the previous year, visitors had also become more frequent, one couple even putting down «half a crown» to start a ‘Messines’ restoration fund.
In February 1932 the Express and Star featured Groucott’s exploits and appealed for help and money to aid the «enthusiastic ex-Guardsman». Ernest had become the self-appointed caretaker of the model, installing a small hut and even putting up a flagpole for the Union Flag provided by his son. Visitors were given a guided tour and Ernest, for a small fee, would indicate the relevant positions of towns and villages for fifty miles around ‘Messines’.
The return of the military to the Chase in the Second World War ensured its further isolation and deterioration; the only visitors were local children who took delight playing on their ‘secret’ village. Post-war, Scout groups staying at the nearby Beaudesert Park Campsite would stumble across the curiosity while on nature hikes, no doubt oblivious to its origin.
A local resident recalls playing on the model, still clearly recognisable as a ‘village’, with his friends in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In particular he remembers the church, «made of bricks with a pocket watch still cemented into the tower as if to be the church clock».
His last memory of the ‘village’ in the mid-1950s was seeing the church, complete with its pocket watch, in a neighbour’s garden. The model had by the 1960s vanished from view, seemingly reclaimed by nature, a few bricks or areas of cement the only visible evidence that something man-made had been there.
Ownership of the land passed from the Anson family to Staffordshire County Council with Cannock Chase, in 1958, being designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Over time, visitor numbers would increase, with few realising the important role the area had played in both world wars.
The significance of the area’s military past prompted the County Council in 2006 to commission survey work to establish what remained of the camps. A partial survey of the old Brocton Camp area revealed the ‘footprints’ of huts and associated rubbish tips, as well as what were believed to be practice trenches. Features such as the filter beds, a weighbridge and the water tower base were known, as was the supposed location of the ‘Messines’ model. While an excavation of a trench and rubbish tip in 2006 had proved successful, a walkover of the site of the model at the same time had led to the conclusion that little or nothing remained of it.
It was in 2006 that Lee Dent and Richard Pursehouse first met via mutual friends, Shaun Caddick and Andy Preece, on a trip to the Somme battlefields.
During the trip Lee raised the subject of ‘military’ remains closer to home; a scale model of a Belgian village on Cannock Chase. Of the four friends, two had heard of the model, and the associated rumour of it being built by German prisoners.
The conversation was forgotten until September 2007, when a chance find of a picture of the model prompted Lee and Richard to find out more. Their first port of call was the County Records Office — which had very little to offer on the model, but provided a sewer plan for Brocton Camp. A leaflet giving an overview of Cannock Chase in the Great War, produced by the County Council, conveniently gave a location for the Messines model. «It was literally X marks the spot,» said Richard.
Armed with this information, a visit to the site was immediately undertaken by Richard. What he found was not what he expected: «The photograph showing the Messines model which Lee had found was really impressive but all that I found was a large overgrown area, dotted with trees and gorse, no village, no roads, no trenches, nothing.»
Disappointed, he bent down and picked up a stick to throw for his dog: «I picked up the stick — but it wasn’t wood -it was concrete. I moved a few more feet and found another bit, but this time it was flat with a raised piece of concrete on top.» More searching found an exposed piece of concrete next to a gorse bush root but this time Richard could not pick it up, it was fixed solidly in the ground.
The two men approached the County Council for more information. They were advised by the Council’s representative that very little was known about the model except for what had been written in the book A Town for Four Winters. The site had been walked over the previous year but nothing of the model appeared to have survived, and it was believed that nothing had been seen of it since the 1960s. Also mentioned was the fact that military academics had doubted the accuracy of the model, as they could not accurately match the trench features in the available photographs with those on a trench map of the same area in Flanders.
Believing that the Council had no objection to them investigating the site further; the pair returned to the area where Richard had found the partially buried concrete. Investigation of the ground revealed that the vegetation covering the concrete was only about five centimetres thick, and could be pulled back with ease. A groove, bordered on both sides by a formed lip, approximately two centimetres wide, was revealed in the concrete; a feature the pair believed must be the representation of a trench. They worked for about five hours, uncovering an area approximately four metres by three metres.
Lee explained: «As more material was removed a mixture of features came into view. Apart from what we had determined were trenches, a band of uniformly shaped pebbles, approximately ten centimetres wide, crossed part of the area. This initially caused a bit of confusion as the pebbles were not set into the concrete, but it was quickly realised that they were part of the model and not just a random collection.
«A third major feature in the trench, a curving groove approximately six centimetres wide, was bordered on both sides by block-shaped concrete. The groove was more substantial than those identified as trenches, and had slots in the base at ninety degrees to the sides. The slots, one of which contained a fragment of shaped wood, were about five centimetres apart and measured approximately two centimetres wide and one centimetre deep. We weren’t at all sure what it, or the pebbles, represented. The concrete that the model was made of was pretty well intact around the features, but was less so in the flatter areas in between.»
Photographs and measurements were taken before the area was covered over using the original material that had been removed, fully restored after the impromptu excavation. What Lee and Richard had established was that more of the Messines model had survived than anyone, it would seem, had expected.
Details of the find were relayed to Ian Wykes, Group Leader (Sustainability and Cultural Environment) and Stephen Dean, Principal Archaeologist, at Staffordshire County Council, who greeted the news with a mix of incredulity and surprise.
The initial surprise that the evidence laid before them showed the existence of the ‘Messines’ model, was tempered by the realisation that a grave «communication error» had occurred that could have serious repercussions for Lee and Richard.
The area in which the ‘Messines’ model is situated is designated as a Special Area of Conservation. As such any work carried out in that area had to be licensed by Natural England with the agreement of the land owner, in this case, Staffordshire County Council. The fact that Lee and Richard were unaware of the area’s designation and the belief they had been given the «okay» to investigate by the landowner made no difference; they were informed that the matter had to be referred to Natural England and a prosecution for «unlicensed digging» was likely.
Having reviewed the situation, in the end a prosecution was not pursued. It was pointed out, however, that any further disturbance of the area would not be treated so leniently.
For Lee and Richard, a valuable lesson learnt, the next step was to continue their investigations «above ground», researching through archival records to see what more they could learn.
Richard had, meanwhile, obtained a previously unseen picture of the model from local historian Mr David Battersby, so it was decided that the question of the model’s accuracy needed to be addressed. Richard recalled, «We had several views of the model and our dig photographs, so we had a unique opportunity to match known features against a trench map of the Messines area. The photograph that been lent to me by David, had signboards clearly visible on the model and after a bit of computer wizardry we were able to make out -un- W—k, marked on one of them.
«Helen, Lee’s partner, suggested that it meant Huns Walk, as a road leading from a crossroads to the north side of Messines, bore that name on a map she had seen … This was crucial as we were now able to orientate the detail in the photographs with the map. We matched our dig photograph to an area south-west of the village; a trench system known as Ulcer Trench and Ulcer Support.»
With time Richard and Lee’s persistence — combined with the help of Dolores Ho, the Archivist of the National Army Museum, New Zealand — brought results.
In December 2007 Birmingham Archaeology was commissioned by Staffordshire County Council to reopen the area Lee and Richard had re-discovered in order to provide a Monument Assessment Report. During the re-excavation Lee visited the site and was able to inform Martin Brown, one of those tasked with compiling the report, of their findings to date.
Lee explained: «Martin was recording the area we had dug in October, while his colleagues were busy with all manner of other tasks, including laser scanning of the exposed area. Using Martin’s original Great War trench map, I was able to show him exactly where the trenches on the model would have been at Messines.
«I had only worked out the previous night that the curved feature in our photos was a trench railway, and it was amazing to be able to see that the map and model match perfectly. The attention to detail was fantastic — underlined by the fact the model’s builders had not only represented the trench railway, but also the wooden sleepers on which it lay, making sense of the shaped piece of wood found in one of the slots.
«I walked with Martin over the area it was believed the model covered and I was able to put forward a theory Richard and I had about a raised area that ran around three sides of the model. We had concluded it was a viewing platform which would give a view over the model without having to climb a tower.»
More information was now coming in from all directions. Dolores learnt that the model had been built, «under instructions from Lieutenant Colonel J. G. Roache, for the use of the Regimental School to instruct officers and NCOs in Topography». Details of the size of the model — «40 yards square» — also came to light, as did its construction ratios of 1:50 in the horizontal and 1:25 in the vertical.
The construction ratios of the Brocton model were subsequently found to replicate the model at Romarin in Belgium; though the latter exceeded the two thousand yard front represented by Brocton. Compass bearings taken during a field trip to Messines in 2008 suggested accuracy also stretched to how the model was orientated on the ground at Brocton.
In due course, the Monument Assessment Report declared that the model’s site was a monument of ‘international’ as well as ‘national’ significance and outlined the steps that should be taken to ensure its preservation. It would not be until 2012 that the opportunity would arise for further excavation of the model.
Stephen Dean, County Archaeologist, contacted The Chase Project (the name adopted by Lee and Richard for their work on the site) with the news that funding was being made available to ascertain the true extent of the model, prior to a full excavation of the site — at a date to be arranged. Three sides of the model were bordered by the viewing platform, so the search for the western edge formed the main objective of an evaluation by Northamptonshire Archaeology in February 2012. Two other objectives, ascertaining the depth of burial and the state of preservation of the model, formed the balance of the brief issued by Staffordshire County Council’s Historic Environment Officer.
In March 2012, Northamptonshire Archaeology released its report concluding that, «The archaeological evaluation was successful in identifying the western edge of the terrain map of the Battle of Messines».
Staffordshire’s ‘Messines village’ remains the only known surviving example of a First World War terrain model. Its construction in concrete only adds to its uniqueness as most were fashioned from the ground on which they stood, lost to the plough as war gave way to peace.