North-east pupils relive trench war ordeal
● Recreation at Gordon Highlanders Museum
There was a haunting atmosphere at the Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen this week. A group of children from schools across the north-east walked round the site where a large-scale recreation of a First World War trench has just been constructed at the Viewfield Road facility.
An actor, Jack Elvey, dressed as a private on the Western Front, read letters from some of those who actually fought in the conflict.
He was young, inexperienced, tremulous – just as so many thousands of his predecessors would have been 100 years ago.
And everyone present, from the youngest school pupil to more senior museum volunteers, seemed to appreciate the pathos and poignancy of the occasion on the eve of the centenary commemorations marking the end of the Great War.
Work on the Moffat Trench project began in August and the builders have ensured it was completed on schedule.
And although it won’t be open to the public until February, the Press and Journal was offered the chance to explore this flashback to the past.
The concept might have moved from the planning stage to execution in a few months. Yet museum chief executive Bryan Snelling, and curator Ruth Duncan, explained it had taken much longer to make sure all the details were historically accurate.
Mr Snelling said: “Ruth and I went on a tour of other museums around three years ago, among them the Staffordshire Regimental Museum in Litchfield.
“They have had a trench, albeit not as authentic as ours, but bigger, at the museum for many years and the curator was telling us that this is a huge draw and allows them to better tell the story around the First World War.
“We felt that this would be an excellent idea for the Gordon Highlanders Museum to be able to tell the story, but do so in a more impressive and interactive experience, and so the project was born.
“Now that it has been completed, I think the final build is wonderful. It has exceeded all of my expectations and it will be a superb addition to the museum.
“We have attempted to make it as realistic and authentic as we possibly can and the contractors and architects involved have done a wonderful job, in tandem with the museum, to recreate an exhibit which we believe will be both a legacy and a remembrance piece.
“It’s a focal point to remember the soldiers who served in the trenches and witness the conditions they would have gone through.
“And I hope it also offers a reminder of the past to ensure we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.”
His words were echoed by Ms Duncan, who has meticulously researched the life and death of so many Gordon Highlanders between 1914-18.
She said: “I’m really pleased with the fantastic design the architects have put together and the construction company have really pushed the boat out to make these designs a reality.
“I think the trench brings the history of the First World War to life in a way that may promote a greater understanding of what it would have been like for a soldier of this period, which is particularly important on this significant weekend.
“I would like to see it play an integral part in our schools workshop programme and I hope that, in the years ahead, we can add to the trench, so it can remain a thought-provoking and engaging exhibition for many years to come.”
There was a display of artwork and poetry produced by students at Newtonhill Primary School, Turriff Academy and Westpark School and it highlighted the lessons they had absorbed from their classes about the conflict.
Mr Snelling said he had been very impressed by the diligence and imagination which the pupils had shown in bringing their creations to the trench walls.
“A few of the poems brought a lump to my throat and the youngsters have been really fascinated by the whole venture,” he said. “That is one of the most important reasons for doing this – to ensure that those from 2018 learn about the sacrifices which were made a century ago.”
Given the look on their faces and the way they responded to Mr Elvey’s dramatic monologue, it was obvious they had got the message. The trench will open to the public on February 5. Further information is available from www.gordonhighlanders.com
“It’s a focal point to remember the soldiers who served in the trenches and witness the conditions”
An interviewer asked if interest in World War One would fade after the momentous 100th anniversary this weekend of the Armistice in 1918. It seems hardly likely in the foreseeable future, given that virtually every family in the UK has been touched by the Great War in some way. With an estimated 230 British soldiers killed every hour in the fighting, and 700,000 in total, it is easy to see why. What is even more extraordinary is that a war-weary Britain was dragged into another world war around 20 years later. Have we learned anything and could it happen again? Many of us grew up under constant threat of nuclear war in the 60s and 70s, and witnessed countless regional conflicts from the Balkans to Iraq. In recent BBC Reith Lectures, one of our most eminent historians, Margaret MacMillan, posed this question: are we conditioned by our biology to fight wars? In other words, is war an essential part of being human? Being territorial, envious and greedy is part of our DNA, which is a fertile place for the seeds of future conflict to grow. When we think of the Great War, certain images are embedded in our psyche: landscapes laid bare without a single tree or building remaining, tens of thousands of soldiers whose remains were never found, enemies playing football at Christmas in No Man’s Land, pitiful pictures of blinded and gassed soldiers. This was the epitome of the human spirit trying to adapt to its surroundings amid utter horror. The industrial revolution caught up with war, so that even although they lined up like medieval armies, bodies were being torn apart by modern inventions such as tanks, aircraft and heavier artillery shells. A gruesome trench-bound stalemate ensued. Something similar was happening to British and Australian soldiers on the other side of the world in Gallipoli. It is ironic that some of the roots of the Great War could be traced back to this very region through attempts by great powers to seek influence in the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars kept things reasonably safe for decades until disintegrating into the Crimean War. Festering discontent after that was a factor leading up to 1914. All that would have been irrelevant to the soldiers at the front whose minds and bodies were being broken every day. It shows, however, how history has a nasty habit of repeating itself and why we should remember their sacrifice long after this historic commemoration.
“Being territorial, envious and greedy is part of our DNA, a fertile place for the seeds of conflict”
“Estimated 230 British soldiers killed every hour in the fighting, and 700,000 in total”
HARSH REALITY: Actor Jack Elvey performs at the Gordon Highlanders Museum’s replica trench interactive experience.
One of the most evocative works on display at the new Trench in Aberdeen this week was a poem written by Newtonhill Primary 6/7 pupils, Gregor Tait and Zander Ewing.“I could see the yellow gas in the distance, “Drifting closer and closer like a lemon cloud, “The sergeant screaming like a baby that needs “feeding, ‘GET YER GAS MASKS ON!’“I saw men following behind the yellow cloud, “with no protection on no-mans-land,“I was fumbling with my gas mask, seeing all of “the people falling to the ground,“The colours draining from their faces,“I knew there was gas in my lungs and I welcomed it. “I knew there was not going to be a tomorrow, “Well at least, not for me.”
From left, pupils Ellie Willox, Charley Henderso and Darius Turcu-Georgescu