University student digs World War One trench in St Albans garden for film project close to his heart
- Credit: Chris Richards
It's not every day you ask your parents if you can build a World War One trench in the garden.
But then we are living through strange times due to COVID-19.
When faced with the dilemma of how to complete his final year BA Film Production degree project, Chris Richards decided to film at home in St Albans rather than on campus at the University of Winchester.
However, that meant digging an authentic trench to help honour his great-grandfather, Lewis Blackman, and tell the story of the largely forgotten but crucial role signallers played during the conflict.
"It was all built by hand, with hand tools, which makes it all the more realistic," Chris told the Herts Advertiser.
"A lot of big film companies just get a digger in to dig out a trench and it's far too clean and tidy. But doing it by hand it looks far more natural."
It also gave Chris a greater understanding of what life was like for those serving on the frontline during The Great War.
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"It makes you realise what strenuous work it was," said Chris.
"They were lucky that they had a battalion of men to work on one particular trench.
"But with just two people doing even a small section of trench brought home how much effort went into making these trench lines and systems, and the infrastructure that went into that."
The 22-year-old former Beaumont School pupil had been planning to film a short documentary/drama based on his relative’s experiences as a Signaller in the Royal Fusiliers during the First World War.
With the arrival of the COVID pandemic, he suddenly found himself in a situation where comprises would have to be made on his final year project.
"The restrictions put in place by the university meant we were given a choice to either film on campus in the facilities that are available there or go home and film in your own house," said Chris.
Undeterred, Chris decided to construct a WWI trench at his family home in Oakwood Drive, after persuading his parents to allow him to dig up part of the back garden.
"I thought there's not really anywhere of First World War-era appearance on campus as it's all very modern, so I just came home. I took a load of kit and thought I'd build a trench in the garden... as any person would!"
Chris said: "My dad is also very passionate about First World War and Second World War history, so he was very willing to help out."
His mum also came on board.
"This is my final thing [at uni], so I thought I'd best make the most of what I can do," said the creative student.
"My parents were eventually very happy to let me do it and they were very helpful throughout the process of building, and my brother as well was out digging with me in the garden in the rain and the cold. It was worth it in the end."
Fence panels blown down in the wind earlier in the year were recycled to build up the sides of the trench, meaning they didn't have to dig down so far.
"I thought it would be very difficult to build the entire trench down into the ground because those were over 6ft deep, because they had to be," explained Chris.
"So I thought to make it a little easier I'd dig the very bottom of the trench and the fire-step, which is where one would stand for sentry duty or where one would sit when at rest.
"A lot of soldiers would sit against the front of the trench on the fire-step because it was a bit more sheltered than anywhere else. If any shells came over they would, in theory, hit the back of the trench, so you would be less likely to be wounded.
"I built the rest of it above ground as a set with supports and then covered over the top with earth. It looks surprisingly good actually.
"It took three days or so to construct, through the wind, the cold, the rain and even snow."
Being an extra on Sam Mendes' critically acclaimed WW1 movie 1917 also helped with contacts to make his home-made film set more realistic.
His trench comes complete with sandbags, wire, and props and set dressing from a professional props and design company.
Chris has been shooting scenes in recent weeks and even has a full authentic Signaller’s uniform to wear for the film.
"Signallers had to keep communications going under fire and make sure there was coordination between different units, particularly during major attacks," explained Chris.
"It was an absolutely vital role but also very dangerous. You were trying to mend a cable that had been blown to bits by a German shell but at the same time you had to keep an eye out for snipers and machine gun posts.
"So in fact it was almost, if not more, dangerous than charging over the top because at least then you had your rifle at the ready to shoot back if necessary. But as a signaller your main focus was trying to get these communications to work."
Chris added: "Signallers have been largely ignored, which is a great shame because they were exceedingly brave, just as the regular infantry going over the top and all the gallant heroes you hear about.
"But you don't hear about the signallers who were doing just as vital a role.
"That's why I thought I need to set this straight, particularly with the personal element of my great-grandfather having served as one."