I like to think that I am a veteran of many foul and stomach churning experiences, but nothing could prepare me for what lay ahead in the basements of London’s, Imperial War Museum.  It was the dank, sweat laden stench, which fell about me the instant I opened the heavy dark painted door, an artificial concoction to trick the senses, before stepping into the darkness, which was World War 1 Trench Experience.  I knew the odour that fell upon me, had been deliberately blended for maximum sensory effect, but as the light of our time ceased, and I peered into the manufactured murk of our forefathers sorrowful past, the deception faded.  Walls of mud, tided with the debris of conflict towered above, barbwire, splinter wood, ammunition boxes and blooded torn fabric fresh from the blooded corpse.   Gunfire rained in the distant dark night sky, beyond the edge of our earthen burrow where no man in sane mind would willingly tread.     A whistles screamed, it pierced my sombre thoughts, a high pitched distraction to heal a troubled mind, how many I wondered had been drawn to their deaths by the breath off one man, blowing on his J Hudson & Co nickel whistle, and how many still lay, undiscovered beneath the battle fields of Mainland Europe, forever silent.

A trench was a complex place, where every aspect of life and death had its quarter.  The officer’s billet, cut deep into the low mud wall had all the comfort a gentleman required in the time of war, a timber bunk with rancid blanket, a table and chair, the dim yellowish light of a kerosene lamp for scribing verse, and reading those long painful letters from home.    The Doctor stood in his surgery.  He had a long wooden table on which he busied himself tending an injured conscript, the gushing blood, and his waxed exhausted expression of the surgeon, telling its own story of utter hopelessness.

Trench ladders lay against the front fighting wall, an ominous reminder that there was only one exit for those unlucky souls whenever the order to advance came. High up, on the fringe that subterranean shelter, the lonely figures of heavily soiled sentries staring down the barrels of their Enfield riffles hunting the Hun in darkness no man’s land.

The duckboard trail guided my weary feet safely past the reconstructions and waxed figures, whose fixed expressions were worryingly real.    The young men who died in their tens of thousands, seemed in some way to be staring back at me thought those cold glass eyes, it was an uncomfortable feeling.

The trench experience had succeeded in its task, for the very fact that I felt like an intruder in a reconstructed theatre, dedicated to the heroism of men long since dead was poignant.    Standing in the brightly lit corridor afterwards, I had just one question, would I of been man enough to climb one of those ladders? I hope to think I might.


Sadly, since I wrote this article the Trench Experience exhibition now appears closed, however the museum is well worth a visit.    As it is the anniversary of Armistice Day, I thought I would just share these thoughts.


© Paul Nichol 2013

  1. Paul Nichol says:

    Reblogged this on Amongst the crowd and commented:

    Today my thoughts are of war, all wars and the people who suffer their consequences.

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