Cannock Chase Exhibition Provides a Glimpse into World War I - aromatichuman19's Blog

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Cannock Chase Exhibition Provides a Glimpse into World War I


Photo: Curator Ron Mattison of Great War Exhibition in Cannock ChaseFor the majority of visitors, Cannock Chase in Staffordshire is simply a pretty place to walk or cycle. Few even realise that the forest has a military history dating back to 1860. During the Great War of 1914-1918, two camps were established here, through which over 500,000 young soldiers were trained in preparation for their transfer to the Western Front.

The trenches that they dug, in order to learn how to live in them, still criss-cross the woodland floor; and, in Marquis Drive, in Hednesford, one of their barracks huts stands ready and waiting as if to receive them still.

Great War Exhibition at Cannock Chase Visitors Centre

"This rifle was first made in 1917, but they were using it for training right up until the 1960s." Curator Ron Mattison told Suite101. At 85 years old, it's difficult to imagine that he is any less sprightly now than he was as a soldier in World War Two. "Why give up on a good idea, when you've got the supplies?"

We are standing in a long hut that was first erected in March 1915 to house conscripted young men. Twenty-eight of them would have slept in here, fourteen beds jutting out from the wall, with pegs and a small shelf apiece for their possessions. This hut doubled as their mess. In the middle aisle, wooden tables were set with white and blue ceramic crockery, ready for meals cooked on the small, black stove. It takes absolutely no imagination to picture the scene. The hut has been furnished exactly as it would have been back then. All that's missing are the soldiers. Except one.

"We will forget the men who lost their lives and these things get perpetuated." Mr Mattison says grimly, staring at a large display showing the military topography of Cannock Chase in the First World War. The sudden sadness is startling. Until now, he has been so enthusiastic and knowledgable on his subject that I have been engrossed for an hour.

He was too young to serve in World War I, but he saw action, as a member of the Cameronian Scottish Rifles regiment, during the Second World War. He had already told me those stories, making it all seem so real. "We were getting ready to attack Hamburg, when the war finished." That didn't stop them sneaking into the Russian Zone of Berlin to steal abandoned German tanks and motorcycles. I could have listened to him all day.

Brocton Camp and Rugeley Camp: Training Grounds for First World War Soldiers

In the autumn of 1914, the British government gained the permission of landowner Lord Lichfield to build military camps in the depths of Cannock Chase, in Staffordshire. It took until March 1915 to construct the infrastructure - roads, water pipes, sewerage and electricity - but then enough huts were erected to sleep 40,000 men at any one time. The two camps, at Brocton and Rugeley, were originally intended to be mere transit stops for soldiers travelling from the north of Britain. Their remit quickly grew.

Musketry, scouting, signalling, physical training, gas warfare and trench building were on the curriculum for soldiers about to experience military action for the first time. Amongst the facilities was a scale reproduction of the real trenches at Messines Ridge, which allowed the men to familiarise themselves with the lay-out, before they had to go to the original. Other amenities included a church, post office, bakery, billiard room, theatre and a small shop for purchasing coffee and cakes. The New Zealand Rifle Brigade made Cannock Chase their UK headquarters.

Half a million conscripts passed through Brocton or Rugeley Camps before the war was over. Some of them returned to convalesce, in a twelve ward hospital, that sprang up on Brindley Heath in 1916. It was built to serve the thousands of people involved in the training camps and survived until 1924.

World War I Revisited at the War Museum in Cannock Chase

Both camps have gone now, but things that the occupants dropped occasionally turn up. They are brought to the Great War Exhibition, where they are displayed in cabinets. These artefacts range from water bottles to tools used in trench-building. Propped against the wall is a gravestone. It marked the last resting place of the canine mascot of the New Zealand Rifles. Freda the Great Dane died in 1918 and was buried locally.

Information boards flank the only door, explaining the history, archaeology and specific stories pertaining to Cannock Chase's role in the First World War. However, they are hardly needed. Mr Mattison is present and his telling is far more vital. Unfortunately, he can only be there on Sundays (between 10 and 4), so the museum has correspondingly limited opening hours. He explained the need for more volunteer curators. Anyone with knowledge about the Great War should contact the Head Ranger, at Cannock Chase Council, if they are willing to help the exhibition open for longer periods.

Most of the big hut is given over to the reproduction barracks. Visitors can walk amongst the beds and handle the items on the tables. Period uniforms hang from pegs on the wall, along with a small photograph of one soldier's wife. "Or maybe not his wife," Mr Mattison smirked, with a twinkle in his eye.

It all felt very real standing there, like stepping momentarily back in time. But for the sounds of children playing and adults chattering, outside Cannock Chase Visitors Centre and cafe just yards away, we could have been in 1918.

The Great War Exhibition is free to access, though carparking is charged at 1 for under three hours and 1.50 for over. Other amenities include a children's play area, forest museum and toilets, as well as access into Cannock Chase itself. It may be found at Marquis Drive, just follow the signs from Hednesford town centre.

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