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Coastal archaeology has a special significance for the study of Britain’s military history, since the shoreline was – after the Navy – our first line of defence. While this importance is keenly appreciated by those seeking to understand the measures taken against overseas enemies in conflicts ranging from the Tudor period to the Second World War, it has remained peripheral to most accounts of the First World War. Now the national community archaeology project established by CITiZAN (Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network), working with Thames Discovery Programme (see ‘Further information’ box on p.31), is demonstrating just how many vestiges of WWI military works still watch over Britain’s coastline.
The appalling carnage in Belgium and France makes it understandable that the Great War of 1914-1918 is often viewed through the lens of the Western Front. There the bloody battles of Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele claimed the lives of almost 2.5 million soldiers. But other theatres were also crucial to the war effort, including the British coast and its territorial waters. These had to be defended from potential invasion, protected from bombing raids, and kept free of blockade or bombardment by the German navy. Some of these themes are being explored through projects such as Home Front Legacy, the East Coast War Channels 19141918, and the Forgotten Wrecks of WWI. Archaeological sites and features recorded by community teams on exposed coasts are making a real contribution to such studies, and we aim to provide a sense of the scope of their findings here.
WAtching thE WAtErs During WWI, as in WWII, a German invasion was a serious risk. This danger prompted a hurried upgrading tOP The degree to which defences established along the coastline in WWI were upgraded during WWII is currently under discussion. The example illustrated here is a WWI square pillbox at Bridlington, which had extra embrasures cut into its corners and the original embrasures enlarged to fit larger and later machine-guns. ABOVE All that now remains of a square WWI pillbox at Bridlington. even such resilient structures are vulnerable to coastal erosion.
of Victorian defences and the commissioning of new military works in vulnerable areas. Bridlington Bay, Yorkshire, was one place in which this occurred. Its stretches of large flat beaches, well suited for landing craft; isolated populations that could be quickly subdued; and an established port made installing measures to combat an invasion essential. A century on, and the surviving coastal defences here, as elsewhere, are at severe risk of destruction from collapsing cliffs and unrelenting tides. During the 1990s, the Defence of Britain Project identified a series of 20th-century beach defences, most of which were assigned to WWII. Re-examination during the early 2000s by what was then English Heritage suggested that several of the small, square pillboxes dated to WWI.
The extent to which WWI coastal defences were repurposed during the subsequent conflict is currently a source of debate. One pillbox in the area had extra gun slots – embrasures – cut into it at a later date, while the existing ones were enlarged, presumably to receive