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24 September 2014

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Students in Shiplake trench
Students in Shiplake trench

Trench warfare in Shiplake

By Ollie Williams
Pupils at Shiplake College have the rare but decidedly unglamorous opportunity to experience life in the trenches, thanks to their own life-sized World War One replica. We spent the night in it!

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I thought they might not be serious.

I thought maybe I'd be able to turn up, take a look at the trench, take some photos then run off before the night set in.

But when I reached Shiplake College to find teachers Chris Bridgeman and Jon Cooksey in combats, wielding guns and throwing 'my' sleeping bag at me, I knew there'd be no escape.

Not, of course, that the many millions of soldiers who lived out their lives in World War One trenches had any choice either.

And the life-sized WWI trench at Shiplake is designed to give today's teenagers an idea of the conditions their counterparts had to endure nearly a hundred years ago.

Social experiment

Shiplake trench
A view of the Shiplake trench

"It's remarkably accurate," says Jon Cooksey, a military historian by trade who teaches at Shiplake two days a week.

"We studied photos of German and British trenches, then Chris built it to the exact same dimensions."

Jon is clearly in his element and, alongside Chris, soon has his troops working to a sentry duty rota, responding to rank, and making the officers (i.e. adults) tea.

He believes the trench is a fascinating social experiment, and that today's youngsters are surprisingly similar to their World War One forebears.

As an example, once the darkness encroaches on games of cards, some of the 13 and 14 year olds in the trench begin to sing.

"They just started spontaneously," says Jon. "It passes time because there's nothing else to do, it's a group activity.

"That's exactly what they would have done in a World War One trench."


'Soldiers' playing cards in trench
'Soldiers' play cards in the trench

Jon's colleague Chris and the students spent six or seven weeks digging the trench, first using machinery, then - painstakingly - by hand.

"We're just hoping they'll get some idea of what trench warfare was like," says Chris.

"With the passing of grandparents and great-grandparents, a lot of that's lost and they don't really understand it.

"So bringing them into the trench to actually see, and properly take part, is important."

The evening begins quietly as the troops settle in but, just before 11pm, the trench is rattled by a series of explosions.

The boys immediately reach for their guns, although some naively try to aim at the smoke above them, rather than facing out of the trench at the enemy in the darkness.

It turns out that enemy is the headteacher, equipped with a box of fireworks. Happily, all survive the bombardment, although the head admits to having grave fears should a school inspection team turn up.

Trench foot

Water in Shiplake trench
Negotiating the water in the morning

Back in the trench the soldiers eventually settle down at gone 1am, as the sentries change for the third time.

But soon the rain starts to come down - and it's this that made trench life truly unbearable in the great wars of the last century.

By 4am, the trench is awash in a foot and a half of water, and ladders designed to go 'over the top' are employed practically as rafts. After all, no one wants to develop trench foot in Shiplake, of all places.

5am rolls in and the bedraggled, damp Year 9s are beating a hasty retreat to the school, a shower, some warmth and some clean clothes.

It looks unlikely they'll be back for a second consecutive night, let alone months of campaigning on the Continent.

last updated: 15/06/07
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Nils Melander
Really cool, I'd like to test it myself! I'm really interessted in world war 1 and 2...

I have been to quite a few of the war sites and the trenches and it is breath taking.

i'm going to belgium soon to visit the battlefields of the somme and ypres. we then go to flander's fields trenches, so this really gives me an insight to what they will be like.thanks

niall widdop
by reading this fantastic peace of magnifacence i would love to go to shiplake and enjoy the trenches

francis earnshaw
i love the way you show what it was like in the world war 1

Hope I won't get to do that when I go to shiplake, but i'm sure i'll enjoy it if I do

George Twydell
its realy gd the trench, i go to shiplake.

Nicole Walker
My brother is in sixth form at shiplake and he said it was really annoying being woken up by the fireworks but im still planning to go for sixth form it sounds halarious

tom morgan (14)
I am from shiplake college and i love the trench it was so cool and ittook harldly any time to make

Phillip Robinson
I applaud the initiative of giving youngsters some experience of the discomforts of front line soldiering and an appreciation of the resolution required of soldiers and marines. However let us keep some perspective. The form may have changed but soldiers still have to dig and live in trenches, though today they are usually two or four man slit trenches. In a slit trench there is no retreat to the relative comfort of a dugout when off sentry duty, nor even a rudimentary drainage system when the rain lashes down. The men of the Great War had to endure great discomforts and perils, but this has been the lot of soldiers through the ages and remains so today. But one learns to live with it and excercise ingenuity in obtaining what comfort and cheer one can. With it comes a comradeship and esprit that is alien to civilian life. Think of those today manning sangars in the heat and bitter cold of Afghanistan, the men of the Falklands in their waterlogged trenches, those in climate extremes in Dhofar or the mountains of Radfan, being wet through for weeks in Borneo or Malaya and the constant attention of leeches, the filth of Korea, and months in continuous contact in Northern Europe, Italy and Burma in WW2. It is a splendid initiative to give youngsters a brief feel for what men in the front line endure and overcome, but let it not be deemed something especially exclusive to the Great War.

That Guy
I go to shiplake and i was just next to the trench i hardly say firing missiles off at 11pm when we were just going to sleep is a gd idea. I believe this could affect my learing. I feel very upset because of this.

Major Mike Peters
What a fantastic idea that can only serve to enhance the students understanding of the reality of trench life. The experience will be beneficial in many ways outside the subject area - well done to Shiplake for going the extra mile!

I go to shiplake and i think that the trench was a really good idea. In many ways!

I think this is brilliant...I wish I could have done this!!! My brother (Y5) is a total History NUT and this would be his idea of really experience what it felt like to have been in trench warfare. Could Shiplake let other schools use their trench???!!!

Jonathan Maher
Id love to come here with a few friends, because were all into the military anyway. Is it going to be open to the public?

Hugo Mills
I was in that trench and it was fun fun fun, with a slightly large pinch of serousness in!
Thankfully this type of warfare will not return.My father as a boy entrant, received four bullet wounds from a German machine gun, just as he was pulling the pin from a grenade, and as he said, "A second later, and I would have been dead."

Harry Wilson
Hi I go to shiplake college and helped build the trench. I think that the trench will be good in many ways for example. It can be used in drama,history and even english. I think that it will bring lots of interative learning to the school.Harry Wilson Yr 10

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