How often has anyone visiting the site of a battlefield wondered just how things would have actually looked at the time? How were the various features, now no more than lumps and bumps, constructed?

Reconstruction can answer this question, some of which is possible as artist’s impressions, but this provides little insight as to how something was actually built, and what it took to actually build it. Experimental archaeology can provide the key to unlocking this, demonstrating the practical application of something that might otherwise remain as just a theory. But reconstruction on this scale is no small undertaking.

Yet this is just what the Centre for Experimental Military Archaeology (CEMA) has been created to do.

(Trench system reconstructed at CEMA, Kent. Image: James Valls)

Established in early 2021 at the Kent Event Centre in Detling, CEMA’s vision is to be the home for pan-historical experimentation concerning methods of military attack and defence, and also of the day-to-day lives of soldiers from Roman times to the Second World War. In so doing, becoming a location where military engineering from across the centuries can be investigated, interpreted, constructed and tested.

Led by Andy Robertshaw (whose impressive CV includes extensive investigative work on the Western Front, as well as being the historical advisor to Steven Spielberg, Sam Mendes, and Peter Jackson), CEMA is a multi-period site for learning and filming.

A Military Heritage

The site at Detling has an impressive military heritage, with more than 2,000 years of history having passed close by. Nearby is the likely location of a Roman watchtower, whilst to the northeast, there is a well-preserved site of a motte-and-bailey castle. Three miles away is Maidstone, which was the site of a battle in June 1648 during the English Civil Wars.

More recently, a defensive line, known as the Chatham Land Front, was built in 1914-15 to protect Chatham from attack from the southeast. This impressive piece of military engineering crossed the Detling site, and was subsequently used to train troops destined for the Western Front. In 1916, the Royal Naval Air Service established a base at Detling, which was later taken over by the Royal Air Force.

During World War II, RAF Detling was home to single engine fighters, and twin-engine light bombers. A Detling-based Avro Anson of 500 Squadron shot down two Messerschmitt BF109E fighters and damaged a third whilst on patrol over Dunkirk on 1 June 1940. During the Battle of Britain, on 13 August, the airfield was attacked by Junkers JU87 Stuka diver-bombers which resulted in the deaths of 67 personnel (including the station commander). Likely fragments of enemy bombs were uncovered during initial work on the site in March 2021. Also in 1940, various anti-invasion defences were built, including pillboxes and anti-glider measures, remains of which are still visible today.

The first six months

In collaboration with Wessex Archaeology and the University of Kent, CEMA aims to provide research and education using cutting-edge technology, and more traditional means.

The first project was to construct a length of British World War One ‘A’-framed trench, complete with a dugout and other features common to British trenches along the Western Front. This has been followed by the construction of a Moir machine gun pillbox (this 1918 design was constructed from interlocking precast concrete blocks). Future projects include constructing lengths of both French and German trenches, and also some English Civil War fieldworks.

(Reconstructed British First World War trench. Image: James Valls)

In a time where more and more history is being presented in digital formats such as YouTube, podcasts, and virtual reality, as well as film and television, historically accurate locations are becoming increasingly important. Already, several film crews have already visited CEMA.

Another vital purpose for CEMA is hosting educational visits, and several schools and colleges are already booked in. On 2 July 2021, the centre welcomed is first ever school visit and the school’s Head of History wrote:

“CEMA did an excellent job in putting on a range of activities and presentations for 100 of our Year 9 pupils. All the presenters were excellent, had a very good rapport with the pupils, and covered a wide range of Great War topics including food and medicine. The reconstructed trench was a real highlight, and more authentic looking in fact, than anything you’ll see in Flanders. Having taken pupils on various History trips for over 30 years, this was right up there amongst the best of them. If you can’t get to France or Belgium and/or want a UK based alternative, then this is very much the best thing.”

As well as filmmakers, schools, and universities, CEMA is open to visits by other tour groups. For example, soldiers from Army Training Regiments will be visiting the site as part of their 'Realities of War' day (some 1,300 a booked between now and next Easter).

In the future, it is envisaged that not all of CEMA’s activities will take place at its Detling HQ, and it is intended that its role as a centre of learning will enable the knowledge and skills gained by participants to be ultimately transferred to sites elsewhere in the country.

CEMA has already welcomed volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds and interests including re-enactors, archaeologists, and academic and non-academic military historians, each bringing particular talents that are so vital to an initiative such as this; but new volunteers are always welcome. To find out more, including how to participate, visit https://cemahistory.org/

We hope to see you at CEMA soon.

(Inside one of the reconstructed dugouts. Image: James Valls)