Time Team. The Great War: the great leveller

Next Sunday is Remembrance Sunday: 11/11/12. At 4.40 in the afternoon Channel  4 will be broadcasting the programme we filmed at the Machine Gun Corps training camp at Belton Park, just outside Grantham, Lincolnshire. I’m not sure how this will affect the rest of the final series (Series 20) when it’s eventually screened, hopefully next January. Maybe they’ll repeat or re-edit it, maybe not. I just don’t know. But I do know that the decision to show it on Remembrance Sunday is a good one. We made the film with reverence – and I think that comes across – certainly in Phil’s performance, at the close of the film. He was genuinely very moved, as was everyone who witnessed what happened.

One of the things that Time Team does (oops, I should have said ‘did’) to those of us who are part of the Team, both on and off screen, could be called ‘total immersion’. Yes, we’re making a film, but like Method actors, we’re also completely and utterly involved. You can’t do it any other way. You’re either in, or you’re out (and the chances are, you’re out for good, if that happens). And that of course was what happened in the trenches. It really was total immersion then. In fact it made our escapades look positively superficial. Plus there was the ever-present element of extreme danger. Death lay around every corner. And filth: mud and decaying bodies everywhere.

Now I wouldn’t dream of comparing the making of a Time Team film to life in the trenches. That would patently be absurd, but even in our very small way, we found over those twenty years, that the pressure of having to produce a good film in just three days was a great leveller. Our shoots weren’t like feature films, where the great stars retreat to their swanky trailers (or as we’d call them in the UK: caravans). No, we were all in it together and in the process we made life-long friendships which will survive for decades to come. And these friendships ignored all barriers: so archaeologists didn’t just mix with archaeologists and film crews with film crews. I’ve made loads of friends among cameramen and sound-recordists, not to mention Directors, Assistant Producers, researchers, runners etc. In fact these friendships set me thinking when we were filming at Belton.

My grand-father, Lt. Col. Walter Marlborough Pryor DSO was for a time the Commanding Officer of the Royal Warwickshire regiment; in fact he was promoted to C.O. in the trenches of the Somme. In theory, of course, there’s a big divide between officers and men. In camps at home they eat, sleep and socialise in separate quarters. But on active service those barriers soon break down. You don’t salute on the front line as that tells any enemy sniper that there’s an officer present. And officers (especially senior ones) make better, more telling, targets – for obvious reasons. I’ve spoken to friends who were soldiers once, and the officer/men thing gets abandoned quite quickly when guns start firing in anger. So to return to my grand-father, his closest, best friend was his batman (valet/servant) in the trenches. After the Great War he became his driver and right-hand man. I’ve never seen a less master/servant type of relationship: they were friends, close friends. I didn’t realise it when I was a child, but I was witnessing one of the long-term effects of that brutal conflict: the rapid breaking-down of the rigid Edwardian and Victorian class structure. WW2 pretty much completed the job. Of course that’s not to say that British snobbery has been finished-off. Far from it. But at least now it’s just based on wealth: there’s no implication that the upper echelons of society are superior in any other way. In fact, I’m far from certain I envy them their money: do I honestly want endless oysters and Champagne? It’s the rarity of them in my life that makes each occasion special.

I think we’re slowly beginning to understand to what extent the Great War altered the modern world. But it has been a slow process. Again, I used to think that you couldn’t reach a balanced historical assessment of any major event for about fifty years. I wonder now whether that shouldn’t be seventy or eighty – maybe closer to a full century. And why? Because we’re all living far longer and the one aspect of life that changes more slowly than any other, stares back at us from our mirrors, every morning.  Like it or not, we are all of us making and affecting history, even long after the events in question took place. And that is why the cutting-short of so many young lives was  – and  still is – such an appalling tragedy.

Some photos I took while we were filming, back in May:

Time Team: Belton Park, Lincolnshire. Machine Gun Corps camp. Trowelling

The actual digging was very challenging. There was archaeology just below the surface, where there were also loads of roots and other obstacles. The darker soil closer to the camera marks the edge of a lost building.

Time Team: Belton Park, Lincolnshire. Machine Gun Corps camp. Sherds

A typical tray of finds, with sherds of white-glazed pottery, fittings from buildings and a glass bottle.

Time Team: Belton Park, Lincolnshire. Machine Gun Corps camp. 8 array GPR

We made extensive use of GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar), which was towed behind a mini-tractor, which housed the laptop that recorded the data.

Time Team: Belton Park, Lincolnshire. Machine Gun Corps camp. Vickers machine-gun

A Vickers machine-gun. This was the standard machine-gun used by the British Army in WW1

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