Thursday, 21 November 2013

Messines revisited

The story of the model village of Messines, as reported in our September blog, generated lots of interest, with people wanting to know how the model was rediscovered, and how it was ever lost in the first place.

Well, it was found through the detective work of two local historians – Richard Pursehouse and Lee Dent, members of the Chase Project military history group – and involved a host of volunteers, several archaeological units, Staffordshire County Council and researchers from across the globe. Plus, of course, a dog.

In 1920 the process of winding down the military camps of Cannock Chase was well underway, with reusable materials being salvaged and anything of value sent for auction. Remarkably, the Messines model didn’t seem to be considered important by the authorities, and it was ignored but luckily not destroyed. With grass and tree roots starting to encroach over the following months, local Cubs and Scouts tried to clean the model up, but when the huts surrounding it were torn down, it was completely exposed to the elements and began to deteriorate.

The future of the model seemed a little brighter come the 1930s, when Ernest Groucott, an ex-Grenadier Guardsman, undertook some renovation work. As an army driver he had been active in the area during the war and had seen the model being constructed. By 1932 he was giving guided tours of the model for a small fee and a restoration fund had been set up.

But this memento of the First War could only decline further as Britain faced the Second, and while local children played on it in the 1940s and 50s, by the 1960s it had almost completely disappeared from view.

And so it remained until 2007, when Richard Pursehouse picked up what he thought was a stick to throw for his dog – and discovered it was in fact concrete.  Richard and Lee had been researching the model since discussing it on a trip to the Somme Battlefields the previous year, and had tried to find the site. However, seeing the overgrown condition of the area, with not a glimpse of the model to be seen, they had more or less decided (like the Council) that it had gone. But now, a little scraping revealed patches of concrete around the gorse bushes … how much of the model remained?

In December 2007 Staffordshire County Council commissioned Birmingham Archaeology to assess the area identified by the Chase Project.  With the help of Dolores Ho of the National Army Museum in New Zealand, Richard and Lee continued to research the model, establishing the existence of the viewing area on three sides and that it had been built ‘under instructions from Lieutenant Colonel J.G. Roache for the use of the Regimental School to instruct officers and NCOs in Topography’. The Chase Project was able to gather an extensive dataset of maps, photographs and diaries to help archaeologists in their task.

Finally, in 2013, a full excavation of the model took place, with the site being declared to be of international as well as national significance.  The model was freed of scrub and dirt and a laser scan carried out so that an exact 3D replica can be built.

Unfortunately, although largely made of concrete the model is actually very fragile, and it was decided that it had to be re-covered to protect it from the elements and damage from burrowing animals. It was therefore covered with a breathable membrane, followed by a layer of sand, rabbit-proof netting and finally specially selected soil.

In this way the Messines model has been made safe for future generations as they contemplate some of the most momentous events in British history.
The model under construction.
Photo courtesy of the  National Army Museum New Zealand
Detail of German strongpoint north-east of Messines.
Photo courtesy of the Chase Project

Site of the model cleared prior to excavation.
Photo courtesy of the Chase Project

Anyone with any information on the model can contact the Chase Project at The group is now also researching the Staffordshire Tank Banks of the First World War.

1 comment:

  1. The Birmingham Branch of the Western Front Association will host its annual members meeting at Sutton Coldfield Town hall annexe on Saturday 21st December at 2.00pm.
    Amongst presentations of members research will be Christopher John giving an Overview of the Cannock Chase Model of Messines comparing historical aspects of the original and excavated model.
    The meeting is open to interested members of the public.Free parking is available.