CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Hertfordshire Life today CLICK HERE

Never such innocence again: Berkhamsted’s First World War training camp

PUBLISHED: 13:20 18 August 2014 | UPDATED: 13:20 18 August 2014

On a break after completing a trench

On a break after completing a trench


Tramp along one of the mysterious gulleys that criss-cross pretty common land near Berkhamsted and you will be following the footsteps of thousands of young men destined for the trenches of the Western Front. Campaign to Protect Rural England Hertfordshire chairman Elizabeth Hamilton walks the one-time World War I training camp

A practice trench still visible in the vegetationA practice trench still visible in the vegetation

A wedge of countryside, protected as Green Belt and part of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, reaches nearly into the centre of Berkhamsted. Public paths across this area give access to the large expanse of Berkhamsted Common to the north. Roman buildings have been found in this sheltered valley, where later Saxons established a timber castle. After the Norman Conquest, the castle was replaced by a substantial flint structure with a motte and extensive moats, whose ruins still dominate the valley near the town.

Soon after the outbreak of the First World War, the area was occupied by another settlement, albeit a temporary one. From September 1914 until 1919 the Inns of Court Officers Training Corps was based here, and around 12,000 men underwent several months of training before being commissioned into other army units. More than half would become casualties, with 2,200 killed. Three men received the Victoria Cross.

A tented camp, set up where Bridgewater Road is today, housed around 2,000 men; others used various buildings in the town. Beyond the castle, a large expanse of flat land was the parade and drill ground. Now occupied by playing fields, the area is still known as Kitchener’s Field. The impact on the town’s resident population of 8,000 was substantial.

In the early 20th century, the common was much more open than now and ideal for military training. Here the men practised digging trenches and undertook intensive drills to prepare them for the battlefields of Europe. By the end of the war, they had dug more than seven miles of trenches into the thick flinty clay.

Trench party on the siteTrench party on the site

At the top of New Road, opposite a small car park, a simple stone obelisk is a memorial to the men of the training corps who fought and died on the Western Front and elsewhere.

A separate memorial to the men of Berkhamsted who died in the two world wars stands outside St Peter’s Church in the High Street.

After the war, much of the trench system was filled in and what remained became overgrown with trees, bracken and brambles.

The system was not forgotten however. Graham Greene, who was born in here in 1904 (his father was later headmaster of Berkhamsted School), set his novel The Human Factor, published in 1978, partially in the town.

The Inns of Court OTC memorialThe Inns of Court OTC memorial

His hero, Castle, remembers the scene from his childhood as ‘the remnants of old trenches dug in the heavy red the Inns of Court OTC’. Castle goes on, ‘It was unsafe to wander there without proper knowledge, since the old trenches had been dug several feet deep...a stranger risked a sudden fall and a broken leg.’

Walk the trenches 
In the winter of 2012-13, supported by the Chilterns Commons Project, volunteers mapped the remaining 600 metres of unfilled trenches and cleared much of the vegetation.

To walk the route, with Berkhamsted station behind, follow the road with the castle on the right. Keep straight on to find a public footpath signposted Berkhamsted Common 1, which crosses Kitchener’s Field and continues along the valley bottom towards the wooded common. Take the footpath to the right just before the farm buildings and stables and go straight up the hill until reaching signs to the trenches. An information board overlooks the recently-cleared area.

To complete a circuit of three miles to Berkhamsted, stay on the bridleway, which passes the surviving trenches, then take the waymarked path to the left (look for signs marking the Grand Union Canal Circular Walk), down through bracken and trees. A gate in the fence leads to open pasture with the town visible ahead.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Hertfordshire visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Hertfordshire staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Hertfordshire account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & About

Yesterday, 12:26

Christmas isn’t complete without a trip to a festive fair. From German-style food stalls to vintage fetes, Hertfordshire’s Christmas markets have it all

Read more
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

We quiz author Kevin Exley about his new book that takes the reader on the trail of fascinating stories, new and old, around Berkhamsted

Read more
October 2018
Monday, October 29, 2018

Hertfordshire is a county with a vast, fascinating and sometimes dark and bloody history that has reportedly lead to more than a few angry ghosts sticking around to wreak havoc and take revenge on the living. We have gathered 10 of the most haunted places in the county

Read more
Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Make the most out of autumn with these eight walking routes that take in a variety of Hertfordshire’s terrains and - most importantly – have a cosy pub along the way

Read more
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

We've selected a variety of spooky activities in the county that are sure to delight the kids

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s Charlotte Hussey explores the fascinating world of bats and new projects in the county to help conserve these remarkable creatures

Read more
October 2018
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species is asking the public to look out for mammals on Hertfordshire’s roads as part of a citizen science project

Read more
September 2018
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

From stately homes to skateparks, we have selected some of the best ideas for things to do in Hertfordshire

Read more
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The diverse parkland of Pishiobury Park in Sawbridgeworth is undergoing a five-year plan to promote its heritage and enhance its habitats. It makes for a royal day out

Read more
September 2018
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

From Aldbury to Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire has a plethora of pretty villages. We have picked just 10 that you should visit

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Local Business Directory

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search