CBA North West’s spring conference earlier this May took a look at the archaeology of war in the region from the 18th to the 20th century: hence the title ‘turrets to trenches’. The talks ranged from the archaeology of the first Falklands War in 1770-1, and its regional connections (Rob Philpott); digging up Hulme Barracks in Manchester – the home of the 35th? Hussars who were involved in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 (me – see my earlier blog Excavating Peterloo from August 2013), First World war munition workers’ housing on Merseyside (Helen Caffrey); the home defence of Prestwich in World War Two (Craig Brisbane); and the archaeology of tank traps across Greater Manchester (Kevin Wright). The day was put in its context at the beginning of the morning by Phil Abramson’s overview of the archaeology to be found on the Ministry of Defence’s estates: barrows to bunkers one might say.
The programme was varied, the talks excellent, and the venue appropriate – the Fusiliers’ Museum in Bury. The day was conceived as the first part of two military archaeology conferences (the second being on castles in November 2014), that would take a broader view of the place of military archaeology studies. A key aim of the day was to also avoid the fashion and focus for all things World War One, in this hundredth anniversary year.
Military archaeology is a sensitive subject in the profession as is the excavation of human remains (see my earlier blog Richard the Third and all that… from February 2013) because, I suspect, this is the archaeology of violence and death. Several CBA North West members cited the archaeology of death and violence as a reason not to come whilst others accused us of following the ‘fashion’ for exploiting the First World War. Are all the events this year exploiting rather than commemorating the start of the First World War? On balance I would suggest not. The two world wars of the 20th century (there have been others in the 19th century – the Napoleonic Wars – and 18th century – the seven years war) lie within living memory which adds an extra poignancy to the activities across the UK this year. Thus, both my grandfathers fought in the First World War and my father, mother-in-law, and father-in-law in the second. My daughter as an officer in the army cadets regularly takes teenagers to visit the battlefields of northern France in November, a moving experience for most on the trips.
As ever archaeology, with its roots based in the physicality of the past, provides unique evidence that can be very emotive, especially when it studies recent events related to war. The CBA’s national project, Home Front Legacy, which will run from 2014 to 2018, is generating a huge amount of interest amongst archaeology volunteers, with its own website (www.himefrontlegacy.org.uk), facebook (facebook.com/homefrontlegacy) and twitter (@homefrontlegacy) accounts, and an online toolkit for getting involved. There is already a level of interest for a CBA project not seen since the Defence of Britain project in the mid-1990s. All of which suggests, as Phil Abramson pointed out at the CBA North West conference, that military archaeology has come of age, with a range of techniques and questions specifically tailored to study the archaeology of war and its wider landscape and social consequences. This is not fashion but commemoration, recognition, and record in a way that only archaeology can provide.