Ever wonder why they dug trenches in a zigzag formation?
During the Boer War at the turn of the last century, the British learned a brutal lesson from the Dutch-speaking rebels in what is now South Africa.
At the battle of Spion Kop in 1900, the Boer farmers held a higher position over a trench hastily dug at night in a straight line.
With deadly accurate Mauser rifles, they picked off the exposed British troops one by one.
When the British recaptured that hill, they found 60 to 70 soldiers all shot in the left side of the head or body, said Bruce Tascona, president of the Military History Society of Manitoba, as he led a group of visitors on the third annual Heritage Day tour of the sprawling Camp Hughes site earlier this fall.
The tour, part History Channel episode and part nature hike, saw other tidbits of information served up by Tascona as the visitors strolled through dried grass and juniper bushes at the provincial heritage site, which does double duty as a cow pasture for part of the year.
At one stop, the tour group was introduced to Paul Wallace, posing as a lieutenant from a medical corps. He held up a rusty, dented steel bucket that once served as a latrine pail for some of the 50,000 soldiers from Saskatchewan and Manitoba who were instructed on trench warfare at the site from 1915-16.
Found on the Camp Hughes site by historical society researchers, the relic shows the spartan living conditions endured by soldiers at a time when antibiotics hadn t yet been invented, and typhus and tuberculosis were major killers.
The First World War was the first conflict in history where combat deaths exceeded losses due to disease, said Tascona.
It s a testament to the skill of the medics of the day that there were only 11 recorded deaths at the camp. Their gravestones still stand at one corner of the site, just off the Trans-Canada east of Brandon. The trenches and dugouts, overgrown with snowberry bushes and barely visible now, are believed to occupy about 300 acres. All were dug to replicate the scale and living arrangements that a battalion of soldiers, or 1,000 men, would face on a European battlefield.
In 1916, when 27,000 troops were trained, it was the largest community in the province outside Winnipeg, with stores, movie theatres, a swimming pool, and a hospital.
Tascona and other members of the society, which was founded in 1987, dream of one day restoring portions of the camp, unique in North America, to create the third leg of a Victory Trail including the Artillery Museum in Shilo and the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum north of Brandon.
A shared land-use agreement for the site is in place, but Tascona said developing Camp Hughes as a tourism destination would generate a greater economic benefit than a partial grazing lease.
Under the current deal, the site is off limits to cattle from late June to mid- September.
I m a city boy, and I m not trying to tell the farmers what to do, but it is my understanding that it is extremely marginal land anyway, said Tascona.
There are more trenches here at Camp Hughes than there are at Vimy Ridge National Memorial Park in France, and some of the men who trained there helped take Vimy.
One last question for the historian: Did those farm boys from the Prairies know what they were getting into?
I don t know, said Tascona. Back then, it was a different generation. They truly believed in King and Country. They didn t have CNN to see the action. I think it was a bit romantic for everybody.
I think when they came back home, they knew what they had been through.
LEST WE FORGET