Never such innocence again: Berkhamsted’s First World War training camp

On a break after completing a trench

On a break after completing a trench - Credit: Archant

Tramp along one of the mysterious gulleys that criss-cross pretty common land near Berkhamsted and you will be following the footsteps of thousands of young men destined for the trenches of the Western Front. Campaign to Protect Rural England Hertfordshire chairman Elizabeth Hamilton walks the one-time World War I training camp

A practice trench still visible in the vegetation

A practice trench still visible in the vegetation - Credit: Archant

A wedge of countryside, protected as Green Belt and part of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, reaches nearly into the centre of Berkhamsted. Public paths across this area give access to the large expanse of Berkhamsted Common to the north. Roman buildings have been found in this sheltered valley, where later Saxons established a timber castle. After the Norman Conquest, the castle was replaced by a substantial flint structure with a motte and extensive moats, whose ruins still dominate the valley near the town.

Soon after the outbreak of the First World War, the area was occupied by another settlement, albeit a temporary one. From September 1914 until 1919 the Inns of Court Officers Training Corps was based here, and around 12,000 men underwent several months of training before being commissioned into other army units. More than half would become casualties, with 2,200 killed. Three men received the Victoria Cross.

A tented camp, set up where Bridgewater Road is today, housed around 2,000 men; others used various buildings in the town. Beyond the castle, a large expanse of flat land was the parade and drill ground. Now occupied by playing fields, the area is still known as Kitchener’s Field. The impact on the town’s resident population of 8,000 was substantial.

In the early 20th century, the common was much more open than now and ideal for military training. Here the men practised digging trenches and undertook intensive drills to prepare them for the battlefields of Europe. By the end of the war, they had dug more than seven miles of trenches into the thick flinty clay.

Trench party on the site

Trench party on the site - Credit: Archant

At the top of New Road, opposite a small car park, a simple stone obelisk is a memorial to the men of the training corps who fought and died on the Western Front and elsewhere.

A separate memorial to the men of Berkhamsted who died in the two world wars stands outside St Peter’s Church in the High Street.

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After the war, much of the trench system was filled in and what remained became overgrown with trees, bracken and brambles.

The system was not forgotten however. Graham Greene, who was born in here in 1904 (his father was later headmaster of Berkhamsted School), set his novel The Human Factor, published in 1978, partially in the town.

The Inns of Court OTC memorial

The Inns of Court OTC memorial - Credit: Archant

His hero, Castle, remembers the scene from his childhood as ‘the remnants of old trenches dug in the heavy red the Inns of Court OTC’. Castle goes on, ‘It was unsafe to wander there without proper knowledge, since the old trenches had been dug several feet deep...a stranger risked a sudden fall and a broken leg.’

Walk the trenches In the winter of 2012-13, supported by the Chilterns Commons Project, volunteers mapped the remaining 600 metres of unfilled trenches and cleared much of the vegetation.

To walk the route, with Berkhamsted station behind, follow the road with the castle on the right. Keep straight on to find a public footpath signposted Berkhamsted Common 1, which crosses Kitchener’s Field and continues along the valley bottom towards the wooded common. Take the footpath to the right just before the farm buildings and stables and go straight up the hill until reaching signs to the trenches. An information board overlooks the recently-cleared area.

To complete a circuit of three miles to Berkhamsted, stay on the bridleway, which passes the surviving trenches, then take the waymarked path to the left (look for signs marking the Grand Union Canal Circular Walk), down through bracken and trees. A gate in the fence leads to open pasture with the town visible ahead.

The Inns of Court OTC tented camp outside Berkhamsted

The Inns of Court OTC tented camp outside Berkhamsted - Credit: Archant

The route to the common from Kitchener's Field

The route to the common from Kitchener's Field - Credit: Archant