My Favourite Time Team Episode: The Forgotten Gunners of WW1

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One of the first places I heard about the YMCA was in the Time Team episode 'Forgotten Gunners of WW1'. It's one of the later episodes, from series 20, and investigates the Machine Gun Corps' camp at Belton House in Lincolnshire. It's an interesting look at how military camps were structured and how temporary ones were established, as well as significantly (for me, at least) the place of the YMCA hut in the camp.

The title of this episode does annoy me; in Time Team terms, First World War machine gunners rank as one of the least forgotten things they've investigated, aside from the Spitfire. It certainly doesn't compare with 1,000 year old Keeill burials on the Isle of Man or the many destroyed Roman settlements they've uncovered. Nonetheless, this does fit with trends in First World War nomenclature and it doesn't detract from what is actually a very good episode.

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The Belton camp was mapped out at the time and so it was easy for Time Team to dig the site of the YMCA hut, now only marked by a few earthworks. What was surprising was the number of finds that came from the dig, for archaeology so comparatively modern. Almost straight away broken china is uncovered, with the logos of Horlickd, the YMCA and the Machine Gun Corps still in good condition. It surprised me how much of this  had been left in the ground and was not cleared up when the camp was demolished in the 1920s.

One artefact on which they focused was a piece from a pink mug which bore the measure of a pint. Time Team legend Phil Harding immediately assumes this was for pints of beer, only to be corrected by expert Martin Brown. This would, in fact, have been more likely used for hot cocoa, given the prohibition of alcohol in the YMCA. 

In typical Time Team style, only tidbits of history are given and often without any depth, yet it is still an interesting introduction to the place of the YMCA in the camp.

A few of the team go off to visit the local Denton Village Hall which was itself a re-purposed hut from Belton. It was really good to see one of these huts still standing, especially as it gave a good sense of the scale and design of the huts that were being excavated. They were large spaces, specially configured for the gathering of large groups of soldiers, meaning that they were more significant in size and, as is evidenced, durability than one could typically think from a hut.

There's nothing groundbreaking about this episode of Time Team, but then again, no one would expect there to be. It is, however, a really worthwhile watch and I really appreciate (from my own research bias) seeing the work of the YMCA highlighted in such a way. Plus, it's pretty cool to see them fire a century-old machine gun.

The episode is sometimes available on All 4 (through the Channel 4 website) and also here, on  youtube.


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