Monday, 31 March 2014

La Belle Francais

I have just returned form two weeks in France, the first of which was a tour of some of the Somme battlefields, with my undergraduate students whom I had taught a battlefield archaeology course to last year. We also went to Brittany as they had been taught about the pre-historic Atlantic façade. The first few photos are from that part of the trip. Then the final week saw me joining the Somme Association Diggers Brigade for some excavation work in Thiepval Woods, part of an ongoing project I have been involved for the past ten years! Here is a selection of photos from both weeks of the trip!

On the way between the Somme and Brittany we stopped off at Rouen, this is the city's memorial to the Resistance:


The magnificent Rouen Cathedral:


Another, very short stop was at Caen, mostly to look at William the Conqueror's castle, but I also spotted the 3rd Division's Memorial:


Caen Cathedral:


We were really pushed for time to get to Brittany, but I managed to get a quick glimpse in the D-Day memorial museum foyer, which houses this lovely Hawker Typhoon:


And this Willy's Jeep:


And this Pak 40:


The rest of the time was given over to prehistoric visits, but I spotted the Heulgoat First World War Memorial:


Mind you, even the prehistoric stuff was amazing, these glacial rocks of chaos were mind blowing:


The giant mushroom lived up to its name:


And the Menhir de Kerampeulven looked just like one Obelix would have made:


The area was scattered with Dolmens such as this one:


And this one...


And this one...


And even this one...


Then we stopped off at Carnac and wondered at the thought processes that would go into creating such an enigmatic feature.


Then the biggest was saved until last, with this giant 20ft tall megalith at Locmariaquer.


I left the students to view other prehistoric sites and travelled by train back to the Somme just in time to join the excavations there. The project has been running ten years this October and I have been involved since the beginning, with nearly twenty visits to the site. The excavations have taken place on front line trenches in Thiepval Woods, which is where the 36th Ulster Division fought on the 1st of July 1916, with considerable success. The woods are now owned by the Somme Association of Northern Ireland and we have painstakingly tried to recreate the trenches as they would have appeared during the Battle of the Somme. Every aspect of the original trenches have been excavated and recorded according to modern archaeological techniques, then revetted and sections of the trenches opened to the public. In this sense, the site and project is unique in that visitors can see the original lines of trenches from the First World War.

When I was last in the wood we had worked on a section of front line, but had not properly understood the archaeology. So it was decided that we would investigate further to try to understand and interpret the remains. On arrival we were greeted with this:


Other areas of trench had previously been revetted but had fallen into a state of disrepair over the preceding year and this was how another section of front line trench looked:


It didn't take very long before we had all the leaves and twigs out of the trenches, then all that was left to do was replace some of the rotten sandbags with new ones.


One evening, one of my friends, Steve, had mentioned he'd seen some German pillboxes which he had not previously encountered, so we went to take a look.


Unfortunately they were on private land, so the fence line was the closest that we got to them!


But there was six in total, we thought they were probably a command position, maybe of battalion level or higher.


Back on site we continued the excavation of the front lines, as always there were the usual artefacts, from bullets, to shell splinters, even hand grenades (only one live one, thankfully! All ordinance is dealt with by an EOD specialist, who removes the potential threat to a safe place which is then picked up by French explosive demolitions teams). One interesting item was this indelible pencil pushed into a British .303 cartridge, probably to make it easier to hold when writing on maps and the like:


As I mentioned, all the remains are treated in good archaeological practise, with each section being drawn and photographed, with context sheets filled in to describe the various deposits. Here is a lateral trench section, you can pick out the various layers of backfill and even trample from the soldiers as they passed through the trench.


Also mentioned previously was the aspect of revetting and repair that has to go on in the features, here a communication trench is fixed up with corrugated iron and frames of expanded metal. Both of these items have been found during the excavations in the woods, so we can be fairly certain that this is a reasonable interpretation of the correct trench furniture.


And this is the result of all that hard work:


The front lines looked spick and span again!


And the communication trenches looked excellent:


Work was progressing well on the other front line areas, we had worked out what was happening archaeologically and were able to follow the line of the trench (despite a tree almost getting in the way!):


Dane proudly shows off the 5m of trenches that we cleared in about four days of work:


Once we had excavated the trench, all that remained was to clean the whole feature, ready for recording. This took a bit longer than we excepted as there was still a large amount of trample left in the base of the trench:


But we got there in the end, the sections were photographed and drawn for the archive:


And overall shots of the trench were taken. You can see that some the edges are not perfect, this is due to slumping or shell strikes. Also about half way along the right hand side of the trench is a dugout that we had encountered in a previous season but had yet to deal with. It had been made safe with sandbags.


However, it was not all work and we also took Dane (his first time on the Somme) out on a few sight seeing visits. Here is a German 77mm Gun outside the Albert museum:


I also took him to my favourite site on the Somme, the Beaumont Hamel Road and Sunken Lane, seen here from the lip of the Hawthorne Ridge crater:


Then Dane provided scale for a photo taken within the crater itself:


The Scottish Memorial at Sunken Lane looked magnificent with the removal of the trees from around it's base:


And finally, this picture of Serre Road Cemetery Number 2 is a reminder of the reason that we excavate the remains of the First World War: So that these men's endeavours should not be forgotten.


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Hedging My Bets

One big thing missing from by gaming board is hedges and with this tutorial I wish to redress that imbalance. I have been puzzling how to make hedges for a while until I bought some compressed horsehair from Treemendous at Vapnartak, so this post will also be a product review of that. But you get two for one in this post as I still needed something to mount the hedges of though, so I bought a set of thirty six 2mm MDF bases from Warbases, these were very cheap and came pre-cut to a length of 100mm by a width of 25mm. That would give me about three and a half metres of hedgerow and you, dear reader, two product reviews in one!


As you can see, the bases are cut square when they arrived and the edges were too sharp and vertical for my needs. Using a craft knife (watch those fingers!), I carved the edges away so they would taper towards the upper side of the base. It doesn't have to be neat as they are supposed to represent a natural bank of earth at the base of the hedge anyway.


But they do need a bit of cleaning up and as MDF works well with sandpaper, the edges were soon looking a lot better! This stage took less than an hour for twelve bases.


The next stage was applying sand, I did this by brushing thinned down PVA glue over each base then dipping it in the sand. I laid them out to dry and they reminded me of Captain Birdseye's Fish Fingers...


When the sand was dry it was simply a case of painting the base. I sprayed them all in Humbrol Dark Green, inkwashed with Vallejo Flat Earth and a final drybrush of Yellow. They were then varnished and left to dry again.


This is the slab of horsehair which I bought from Treemendous and it's easily cut into strips with a pair of scissors. I found that one strip (about 1cm wide) did enough for four bases, with a little left over, which I will probably put to another use at some point.


The next step was to simply cut the strip into smaller lengths and PVA glue them onto the bases. The glue will dry clear, so don't worry about that big blob of white!


The foliage still looked a little too uniform, so I gently teased the horsehair apart to give a more rustic look:


They still looked a little bare, like a Winter hedge and I wanted Summer hedges, so the next step is to add some more foliage. This also came from Treemendous in the form of pre-coloured ground-down cork scatter and is sold in clip bags. I splattered some thinned down PVA glue with an old brush randomly along the length of the hedge then dipped it in the scatter. The result was excellent. It looks like a natural countryside hedgerow rather than a tidy privet hedge which a lot of commercially made hedges can sometimes look like.


The final step was adding some clump foliage to the base along with some grass tufts to the bases to break them up and represent the other flora that one finds at the bottom of hedgerows.


And here they are, with some Panzer IVs and Trucks to give a sense of scale. 


They provide a block for line of sight and an extra dimension that my board was missing. 


I am very happy with how they turned out and the Treemendous horsehair is perfect for the job. The slab I bought cost only a few pounds and has turned out loads of hedgerow, so all in all a great deal! It could be said that these hedges are pretty high, but it not only the Bocage of northern France that has high hedgerows, as this photo of a UK hedgerow shows:


I am off to France for a couple of weeks on Monday, firstly taking some students on a battlefield tour then for some excavation work at Thiepval Woods for a week, so this blog will be a little quiet until I return!
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