The Halton Trenches

Nominated by: Francis Hanford

In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Mr Alfred Rothschild offered the use of his Halton Estate to the army.  This was accepted and the newly recruited volunteers of Kitchener’s 21st Division arrived in October to train as infantry.  They departed for the front in August 1915, to be replaced by the East Anglian Reserve Division, a home defence and training unit.  These, in turn, were replaced by a school for Royal Flying Corps mechanics in mid-1917.  This remained, from 1918 onwards under the newly formed Royal Air Force, to the end of the war and beyond.

Back in 1914, the first few months were chaotic.  The men lived 19 to a tent with one blanket apiece, catering was at the mercy of whoever could be found to cook and they had only the civilian clothing in which they arrived.  Rifles and all other equipment were in very short supply, as were instructors, for the previously recruited units had soaked up all the experienced officers and NCOs who were not serving in France.  Then, within weeks, the weather deteriorated and the camp became a sea of mud, eventually forcing all units to be moved into billets all over the north of the county.  McAlpines were contracted to build wooden huts for three brigade camps.  This dragged on into 1915, during which time training consisted largely of drill route marches and physical training, mostly at battalion level.

Men of 14th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers settling into the tented camp

Thus, digging the first practice trenches only started in April 1915.   A contemporary photograph suggests that these were on the open land at the foot of the Chilterns, south of the Tring road.  They were in constant use until the division departed for France.  However, trench warfare training resumed as the East Anglian Reserve Division took over the camp and it became a massive training unit for drafts of reinforcements for the East Anglian battalions at the front.  By now a fair number of the instructors had gained current front-line experience; so, the system was developed further and modified extensively.  Later, realism increased with the use of live ammunition and explosives.  All of this ended in mid-1917, when the Royal Flying Corps took over to create their mechanics’ training school, so the trenches were ignored as being redundant.

Two images showing the 14th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers digging trenches in 1915.

In 1920 the Royal Air Force purchased the entire Rothschild estate.  Much of the land was sold off to local farmers including most of the entrenched areas; it is said that the most damaged and polluted bits went for as little as £1 per acre.  In time these were cleared and levelled and virtually all traces of trenches disappeared under crops.  However, a small portion survived, around the railway sidings used for the receipt and storage of coal for the stations’ boiler houses and remains to this day.

In 2009 a small part was redug, under the leadership of Warrant Officer Phil Lister.   Volunteers and RAF recruits, who had completed their initial training and were awaiting specialist trade courses, re-created sections of front-line and support trenches to the specifications laid down by the Royal Engineers during WW I.  The opening was performed by Lady Dalton, wife of the Chief of the Air Staff.  It was an immaculate job and was supported with explanatory signs, a raised viewing area and an access path.  Since Phil’s departure “Lister Lines” have had a chequered history with periods of neglect that enabled nature to start reclaiming its own.  Much restoration work was done from time to time but this too was allowed to decay later.   However, they are now under enthusiastic management once more and have even had a WW I display bunker added, in time for a visit by the Duchess of Cornwall in 2019.  

Although access is denied while Covid 19 restrictions remain in force, it will be possible to arrange visits once the crisis has passed.

The Halton Trenches were nominated by Francis Hansford, Curator of the Trenchard Museum at RAF Halton