Each episode of Time Team starts with a Production Meeting in the evening of Rig Day. Normally these are held in a conference room at the hotel where we’re all staying, but this time Production have rigged a large marquee close by the site itself. The (Film) Director usually conducts these meetings and the Archaeological Director says a few well chosen words or encouragement when asked. My time came, and as if on a signal from a malevolent deity hovering a few feet above the tent, it started to rain. A few drops at first. Then a light spattering. Then a heavy spattering, turning to a solid downpour and finally to an old-fashioned Biblical, Armageddon-style, end-of-the-world, Jehovah’s-spitting-teeth-on-your-God-forsaken-little-Production-Meeting, storm. There was a short lull, after which the lightning began. Then the thunder and then more rain – heavier than ever now. It was hopeless: the noise on the tent roof was deafening. Nobody could stand up to the Almighty when He throws such a mega-wobbly. So I sat down, unable to compete and completely out-classed. Not a good start to a three-day film.
Afterwards, we’d been on the road for ten minutes before the storm quite suddenly abated; when we turned into the hotel car park all was sweetness and light. As we headed across to Reception I gave Phil Harding an oak log I’d felled a couple of weeks previously, as I know he’s looking for a source of freshly felled ‘green’ oak on which to carry out some experiments with flint and polished stone chisels. It felt like the start of any other Time Team. To be honest, neither of us had our heads even remotely in the Great War.
On site this morning reality kicked in. It was wet and cold. Not like the winter of 1914/5, but unpleasant, nonetheless. We waited while Tony did his opening pieces-to-camera. While Tony was holding forth, I was leaning against the Disco bonnet looking out across the huge park: it was vast, absolutely immense and with a great brick-built water tower high on a hill on the other side of the valley – that tower had been there when the camp was rebuilt back in 1915. Suddenly the scale of our problem struck home. I began to feel small and irrelevant. How could we have had the brass neck to have taken on something so huge? We had three days to excavate what was in effect a temporary town, built in 1915 to train the men of the newly formed Machine Gun Corps. To the men who manned it, this was the Suicide Squad. A machine gunner on the Western Front had an average life expectancy of about two weeks. And this rural park was where they were trained. Over 170,000 men passed through this camp and over 60,000 were casualties – of which some 13,000 were killed outright.
It was fine first thing in the morning, but then we were hit by a series of nasty storms, which set us back about an hour. It’s one thing to continue a trench you’ve already started through rain, but quite another to select the trench location, lay it out and then start digging – all in the wet. But eventually we did manage to get going and by about eleven o’clock we’d opened our first trench across the spot where the YMCA hut had stood. I put Phil in it and I have to admit that by the end of day it was looking very promising with some wonderful finds, including fragments from a Horlicks mug. I can just imagine young soldiers drinking a hot milky drink before bed. The more I look at it, the more I realise that this camp was certainly well planned, but there are signs of haste everywhere. Clearly speed was of the essence. The war could easily have been lost if Britain and France hadn’t risen to the challenges posed by German machine guns. Thankfully they did, but now I’m beginning to realise just how much that effort had taxed the British army and the public at large. This camp must have been an extraordinary place: throbbing with life, but with that other, darker side never far below the surface. I imagine that life in the camp YMCA (the Great War equivalent of the WW2 NAAFI) would have been much like a booze-less Public Bar in one of the many local Bomber Command airfield pubs, some 25 years later: eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die…