Background... The team behind the Great War Huts project are Kev Smith, Tracey Mackenzie and Taff Gillingham, who co-own a company called Khaki Devil that provides historically accurate military uniforms, equipment, weapons, props and historical advice to film, television and theatre companies. Khaki Devil also own a large reconstructed trench system, on the outskirts of Ipswich, which was built specifically for filming and has been used by many documentary, drama, film and programme makers over the past eleven years. Whenever Khaki Devil have hosted a large production, such as the film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Private Peaceful’, the second series of ‘Downton Abbey’ or lately the Lloyd’s Bank Black Horse advert, requests flooded in from associations, groups and individuals to visit the trenches. However, the site was built as a film set and as a consequence it is not historically accurate. There is considerable public interest in The Great War, not just caused by the Centenary, but a long-term interest too. The trio began looking for a new site to relocate our existing hire business and build a proper Great War visitor centre.
The criteria were simple. Firstly, the site should be large enough to build a historically accurate trench system, showing the evolution from late 1914 until the end of 1917. Having had almost 15 years of proper trench building experience we know that building and maintaining them safely involves a great deal of hard work. We also appreciate that it is not necessary to walk though miles of trenches to tell the story of trench warfare and provide an interesting experience. A well laid-out and constructed system showing the evolution, and all the important features, can be contained in a few acres.
The location of the centre was absolutely crucial. It needed to be sited far enough away from noisy heavy traffic and with no pylons, or other modern distractions, to spoil the effect. We were also keen that the topography reflects the situation on much of the Western Front with the German positions on the high ground. Adequate space for a car park, room for buildings to house displays and the reception area, café and toilets, in addition to a space big enough to house our existing business were also needed. We had researched the cost of managing land and trees and realized that a large site could be a massive drain on resources. Instead we limited our search to sites of no more than five acres. It was a tall order and took literally years to find the ideal spot.
A new site and the first hut... In Autumn 2012 Tracey came across Brook Farm at Hawstead, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, and by April 2014 the team had moved the hire business to its new home and gained planning permission which included eleven wooden replica Great War barrack huts to house the displays and provide lecture and exhibition spaces.
No sooner had had planning been granted, the team heard that Ipswich Labour Club had permission, after an eight year battle, to demolish an “old wooden hut” and build a new function room. After some investigation, it was discovered that a pair of 60’ x 18’ huts that the Army had joined together at Colchester in 1918 to make one large Recreation Hut, complete with a stage at one end. In 1936 the Labour Club bought it from the Army who dismantled it, transported it to Ipswich and re-erected it. After speaking to the club secretary and explained about the visitor centre project and, after a very brief discussion, the club was only too pleased to agree.
The moment the original hut was seen, the team realised that this was a game changer. Replica huts would have served a purpose, but there is no substitute for the real thing. A century ago soldiers, sailors, airmen and women had lived in these buildings; slept in them, ate in them, cleaned their kit in them and trained in them. They are artefacts in their own right. The hut was surveyed, stripped of its interior, numbered the sections and then dismantled it in June and July 2014.
Once the club agreed that we could have their hut we gained plenty of publicity from the local press. A television piece on BBC Look East drew an immediate response. Within days, the Great War Huts team were receiving calls from all over the country, about huts which were soon to be demolished.
Until then it was assumed that it would be impossible to use original huts for all eleven buildings, but plans were swiftly revised. Offers came in thick and fast. The team found themselves travelling across the country to survey community centres, Scout huts, Women’s Institute Halls, Royal British Legion Club’s and even homes. So far, more than thirty huts have been surveyed and visited, and only two pairs of them have been built in the same way.
By complete accident, they had a proper First World War heritage project on their hands and set up Great War Huts to record the work. As part of the project surviving examples are being recorded and original plans and related paperwork being tracked down. As a result, the Great War Huts team has also been able to help a number of archaeology projects that are currently excavating the camps where the huts were originally built.
Going forward... Progress and new findings are posted to the Great War Huts Facebook page and like-minded people post photographs and details of other huts. Groups around the country contacted us wanting advice to restore their own buildings, or for copies of plans. Teams from English Heritage, The National Trust and Stow Maries Aerodrome in Essex have visited us to see what we are doing and how we can help with their projects. All our findings should be published in the future.
We are now working towards ‘Great War Huts’ becoming a charity, independent of the visitors centre, as we firmly believe that these buildings are important heritage assets that should be recorded and preserved for future generations.