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Call for volunteers to unearth the story of Wilfred Owen’s military training camp

A kettle recovered from Witley Camp

A kettle recovered from Witley Camp

An army of volunteers is needed to help uncover the secrets of a former Surrey military camp where renowned war poet Wilfred Owen penned a prelude to his famous ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.

A century after Owen trained for First World War service at the camp near Godalming, Surrey County Council’s archeological unit is leading a project to excavate the area for the first time and document the findings.

Both civilians and members of the armed forces past and present are being urged to take part in the dig at Witley North Camp during the summer and autumn, with no prior archeological experience needed.

The project is backed by a £30,000 grant from the Government’s community covenant scheme, which aims to strengthen ties between the civilian and armed forces communities through worthwhile local initiatives.

The Surrey County Archeological Unit secured the grant with support from Natural England, Godalming Museum, Combat Stress and the Thursley History Society.
Witley North Camp was a hive of activity during both world wars but is now almost completely lost.

Owen arrived at the camp in June 1916 to train for combat in France. While there, he wrote a sonnet titled ‘A New Heaven’ which he later reworked as ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ – one of his best-known works alongside verses such as ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and ‘Insensibility’.

Owen spent several months at Witley North Camp before departing for the battlefields of France for the first time in late December 1916. He died just a week before the end of the war aged 25.

A rubbish dump linked to the camp has already revealed some secrets including First World War artefacts such as badges, Bovril jars and brass gun oil bottles.

Even less is known about the role of the site during the Second World War, when it was known as Algonquin Camp.

Richard Walsh, Surrey County Council’s Cabinet Member for Localities and Community Wellbeing, said: ‘This exciting project will help build relations between the civilian and armed forces communities while shedding new light on an important aspect of Surrey’s past.

‘We know this site near Milford was a temporary camp during both world wars but there is much still to uncover about its precise role and its impact on the local area, and I would urge volunteers to come forward to help us tell its story.’

Volunteers will help conduct a series of non-intrusive surveys to identify areas of archeological interest at the camp and will then be asked to assist with four weeks of excavations spread out over the summer and autumn.

They will also be trained to use the archives at the Surrey History Centre in Woking to help amass documents, postcards and newspaper articles linked to the site.

The finds from both the archeological fieldwork and archives will be collected to form an exhibition and booklet to enable the whole community to learn more about the history of this important military site.

If you would like to volunteer on this project, share your knowledge of the camp, or for further information, please email education.scau@surreycc.gov.uk.

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