“It is a rare privilege to discover a story or a place that has been largely lost to memory” says Mark Butz, author of ‘The Best System of Trenches in Australia’.
In 2014, the Jerrabomberra Wetlands board decided to dedicate time to researching the history of the area. As a history enthusiast, Mark took on the job and got to work uncovering scattered pieces of information about a wetland area that formed only because of the damming of Lake Burley Griffin.
The recent publication of Mark’s book, gives readers the opportunity to learn about a missing piece of history. But the journey of how he got to this point is just as interesting:
It was easy to see that there was a big gap in knowledge about the area’s cultural heritage, so I began a desktop study of available sources. Sylvia Curley’s memoir of Duntroon and Mugga Mugga talked about military training on Mill Flat during the Great War and about visible remains of trenches. Pursuing this hint, I found other references to a trench system used to train officers in trench warfare and bombing, to prepare them for the kind of warfare being waged on the Western Front.
After some confusion about the location of the trenches, old aerial photographs showed us that the site was on the left bank of the Molonglo, directly opposite Duntroon. Piece by piece – and with increasing excitement – we unearthed archival records, and a 1920 map that included the label ‘old trenches’, and a series of other references that left no doubt at all.
We now had the location – by that time a fairly rough riverside paddock – but we did not know how the old trenches below ground would relate to the surface features we can see today. And we did not know whether the trenches would be visible even if we were able to dig down to find them. Fortunately in mid-2015 we got funding to do some archaeological work with the ANU. This showed that trench lines are still visible below the surface, and we were able to get a reasonable fix on where the trenches run under today’s surface. The excavation attracted a lot of attention and interest, including international coverage.
A Heritage Grant through the ACT Government enabled development of public access to the site and interpretation of the system. The Woodlands & Wetlands Trust then started trench tours, which have proved very popular with visitors keen to share in the excitement of the find. This has helped to open up a whole new awareness of Jerrabomberra Wetlands, and has brought many new visitors to discover its cultural heritage values. I like to say of the Wetlands: ‘Before there were birds there were bombs’.
Now to the book – the research to develop the interpretation, and the kinds of questions being asked by participants in tours, led to a rich background story. The Governor-General at the time described the Duntroon system as ‘The best system of trenches in Australia’. We knew that it certainly was not the only instructional trench system in the nation, we knew what factors made it ‘the best’, and we knew that it appeared to be the only remaining trench system site that was publicly accessible. This information and a new understanding of the significance of the place grew into a small book about the training, the site, and some of the people who had experienced training in the system.
This has been a remarkable opportunity. My background is in environmental science, and despite a lifelong interest in the past I have not delved much into military history. I have, however, been aware of family members who served in the First World War, and of the grief resulting when some of these young men were killed in service. I had grown up with these stories of courage and loss, as close to me as my grandmother’s much-loved and sorely missed brother who died at Pozières in 1916, with no known grave
I felt it was important that the book have a human face, beyond design technicalities and chronology. I already knew trench warfare was particularly brutal, and exacted a heavy human toll. I found that about 1000 soldiers would have received training in the Duntroon trench system and that, despite the training, a quarter of them would not have come home and most of those who did return would have been damaged.
The exciting – and sobering – process to research and write the book has recovered a lost Canberra story and opened up a newfound historic site, in time to mark the centenary of the trench system. Released for Remembrance Day 2017, the book is dedicated to soldiers of the AIF who were engaged in trench warfare and to the memory of those who did not return. Some stories just should not be forgotten.
If you are interested in reading the much anticipated book – ‘The Best System of Trenches in Australia’, you can purchase it online at our shop.