Let’s Go To The Trenches! – Eminent Document of Learning 2015

Elsie (left) and Mairi (right) in a communications trench
Mairi (second from the left) and Elsie (fourth from the left, back row) chatting with Belgian soldiers in a trench

While at their cellar house in Pervyse, Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker did a plentiful amount of work in the trenches themselves. The two loved to be near the action: bringing soup and hot cocoa to the men living in disgusting, dank, ditches in the ground, carrying with their own hands and over their shoulders downed pilots from the middle of a battlefield, and driving men back to more extensive care in their ambulance along potholed roads and under shellfire on either side. There are many photographs of the two in trenches pleasantly chatting with officers and soldiers during quiet hours. So today, I decided to try my hand at being in a trench.

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Information sign on the replica trench (Click for bigger image.)

I visited the local Port Moody Station Museum that has had a display of a voluntarily recreated trench, known as the McKnight Trench, open since the centennial of the end of the First World War, last year. The soldier it was named after, Augustus Wilberforce McKnight, was from Port Moody. I have been meaning to go and check out this neat interactive  recreation of history since it opened and I thought that it would be a great opportunity to learn more about what it was really like in those trenches and the battlefields during those rough times.

So, my dad and I went to check it out. Unfortunately when we got there, we were told that the trench was closed for a privately scheduled photo shoot and so we were not able to actually go into the trench. However, the museum worker showed us to the back balcony of the museum where we had a good view from above of the trench’s inside.

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The centre block of the trench surrounded by a duckboard pathway.

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An artillery outcropping in the middle of the trench, the centre block from above. You can see the gun slit and a raised bench for the gunman.

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A duckboard pathway at the back of the trench with a sign above on one of the posts and sandbags for stability and protection.

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A bench along the side of one of the passages with two periscopes for looking out into No Man’s Land, and two sandbags that might have been used for pillows or comfort during sleeptime or for rest.

We were also able to go around to either side of the grounds by the gates to the trench to view it from a different angle. At the eastern end I was able to also get some pictures of the recreation of what the battlefield may have looked like to soldiers crossing through No Man’s Land and the immense amount of barbed wire and other obstacles that they would have encountered.

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A soldier’s “Tin Hat” helmet laying in No Man’s Land, likely blown off from a shell explosion and left there. Also a large puddle, only small compared to some of the water filled craters (created from shell explosion) the soldiers would have encountered in the war.

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You can see the artillery slit from the middle block inside the  trench sticking up where guns would have been aimed out. Additionally, the intimidating slopes of the looming trenches over the battlefield would have been daunting and challenging for enemies to overcome.

The western gate view:

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The ladder leading down into the trench at an entrance and the opening on the back right to a tunnel that could have led underground to below German lines where the Allies would have listened to their discussions. Duckboards are installed to try to reduce mud and muck at the bottom of the trench for walking on and the wooden sides support the land in hopes of not caving in in the event of nearby shell explosions.

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A sign on the gate of the year peace was founded again after what was to be “the war that ended all wars”

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Me at the western gate with the trench in the background.

I found it amazing how men could have lived in these conditions and settings for such long periods of time. I was only there for a short period of time, and wasn’t actually down in the trenches, but as it was shady behind the museum, it was very cold. It’s not even winter yet either! It made me think of how much the soldiers must have appreciated Elsie and Mairi bringing them some warm food and drinks and also other helpful things in the wet and damp trenches like dry socks. I tried to put myself in their shoes in those trenches, and what I thought was that it must have been so inspiring and uplifting to see your counterpart, women (to the men soldiers) stepping up and helping you out, especially when it wasn’t expected or even really allowed. It was also shocking for me as this kind of brought to life how rough cut and dirty it must have been on a day to day basis, and you were there 24/7, there was no going home to warm up and dry off at night. Elsie and Mairi would have lived in similar conditions, though they had a small  building, it was half demolished and broken down everywhere and had no amenities of a normal house we would think of.

I think what they did was really remarkable, when you think about, how it was really a collection of small actions by a couple of determined women behind the lines of one battlefield, in one country, helping one person at a time. Seeing this trench was not only very cool to see as it is a recreation of so many historic scenes, but also a reminder and an eye-opener to how real and raw all of it was.  I am glad that I went to visit the McKnight trench as it has really helped me understand and put into perspective how truly unbelievable these two women were, and also all the men with whom they spent their days.

More pictures can be found on my Flickr(linked in all museum photos)

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