Höhe 80 was not simply chosen for the project because it looked interesting on a map. As a site that was under threat from development, archaeology was necessary, but its unusual significance was identified by preliminary research which its uniqueness, and of the extraordinary preservation of its buried archaeological relics. Astoundingly, that one field is known to contain a complete German stronghold within its boundaries, providing a unique chance to excavate it as a whole. And before doing this, a careful procedure is required. Before even breaking ground, desktop research of the site is required, and, if, as in this case, then research area is located within the battlefields of the First World War, this study focuses mainly on the incredible surviving resource of aerial photographs and trench maps. Aerial photographs in particular can provide a detailed image of all activities on site during the war, even creating the possibility of a chronological timeline of the trench system in a given location. Additionally, overlaying the photographs on contemporary maps enables us to pinpoint the exact location of the trenches and other structures, and from this an ‘expectation map’ can be drawn up that will direct the excavations.
The desk study was done by our partner CHAL (Centre for Historical and Archaeological Aerial Photography) and the results were very promising. At the beginning of the war, the southern half of the area was occupied by a mill and its associated buildings. In the succeeding war years, it is not surprising that the wooden mill disappeared quickly, but the footings of the buildings were visible for a long time, and they were gradually incorporated in the trench system on the northern edge of the village. The location became a fortress, with fighting trenches encircling the stronghold, while communication trenches assured traffic between the inner features.
The next step was to groundtruth this data in the field. Initially, this was to see the state preservation of the expected structures and ground traces. But it was also to estimate if the data that had been collected from the desktop study had been sufficient – as not everything can be seen on the photographs, or was indicated on the maps, because they are underground, camouflaged or already destroyed the moment the photo was taken. This first phase of fieldwork was done with test trenches, the purpose of which is to examine what is present below ground. To do this, parallel archaeological trenches were dug every 15m to cover about 12.5% of the site to actually test the
What was actually uncovered during the test trenching was astonishing. Almost all the mapped trenches and buildings indicated in the desk study were located and, significantly, they appeared to be in an exceptional good condition. The wartime trenches were very deep and therefore well preserved – something that is not always seen in the complex soils of Flanders. Even more important was the fact that the southern half of the field had never ploughed since the end of the war, ensuring that all features below surface were untouched; foundations of the buildings, the pavement of the courtyard … Furthermore, there was more to be found than indicated on the ‘expectation map’. In between the expected trenches identified by the desk study, there were more, as yet unknown, trenches. Some of these trenches were undoubtedly part of the German stronghold – but others could have been related to the early fighting in 1914- one trench line was very rudimentary and contained French rifle ammunition- or even the later combat in 1918 when Wijtschate changed hands twice, during the Spring Offensive and Final Offensive.
But it is not only the quantity and the excellent condition of the structures of trench warfare that has made results of test trenching so significant. Perhaps most importantly, and very poignant, was the discovery of several fallen soldiers within the boundaries of the research area. At least one Commonwealth soldier was found inside a trench, probably lying where he fell. Furthermore, other remains of combatants were uncovered, lying in a big rectangular pit. Looking at the positions of these men there is enough reason to assume that several more bodies were buried within this grave. All these men have been missing for over a hundred years, and they surely deserve to have a proper
burial before development plans disturb their current resting place.
This site is of an exceptional importance in the understanding of trench warfare. But also has a higher symbolic significance in the remembrance of the war, the earth still holding men who fell from both sides of the wire.