Exercise Joan of Arc 17

Exercise Joan of Arc 17 
Examining mud, blood and the green field beyond: Ex Joan of Arc 2017
All project design element surpassed!

The fieldwork in Bullecourt which BGH facilitated for Op Nightingale under the banner of ‘Exercise Joan of Arc’ really highlighted the importance of a good project design, a robust desktop and non-intrusive assessment, and having patience. The project was conceived back in 2014 and, since then, the team has conducted complex negotiations with the French landowners, museums and archaeological authorities (DRAC) to ensure safe procedure, and successful archaeology.
From 3 to 11 June, armed with trench maps, air photographs and geophysical surveys undertaken by Cranfield Forensics Institute, our team of archaeologists and veterans started their search for the final resting place of the nine tanks destroyed in the first battle of Bullecourt on 11 April 1917. In particular, we searched for the remains of Tank 796 (D23) commanded by 2nd Lieutenant Skinner which reached the edges of Bullecourt village before its gearbox failed and it was subsequently destroyed.
The DRAC had given permission for the team to excavate a 5x5m trench in a pasture field which most contemporary maps suggested was the location for the destroyed tank (subsequently used as a German machine gun position). The fieldwork did not disappoint. Under supervision of Alex Sotheran, the excavation yielded German ‘elephant iron’ used in troop shelters, a great deal of ordnance, other trench architecture materiel, and components relating to the tank
A large piece of the right track – which included a track ‘spud’ – was unearthed. This cleaned to such a high level that the original paint scheme colour was visible; not a drab brown but instead a dark green. A link of the drive chain was also found as were other elements of heavy metallic objects which may be armoured. Two 6 pounder shells – the main ammunition used by such a ‘male’ tank – were located too. We had thus pinpointed the vehicle and can thus say that the main goal of the project’s first season has been a resounding success.
The programme was also laden with pathos as the excavations also uncovered the remains of two German soldiers who fell close to the tank, and who were lay undiscovered in a shell crater for 100 years. They will now receive a proper burial with their comrades.
The team was located in Arras – the heart of the battles of April 1917 – and was therefore able to enjoy this beautiful city, as well as visiting elements associated with this particular part of the conflict such as the Wellington Caves. We were also profoundly moved by the kindness of the villagers of Bullecourt in their warmth of welcome and assistance with the project – in particular the Mayor, Mme Gladys Dickson, and the farmer Mnr Didier Guerle.
I’ve been with BGH since its inception and have taken so much benefit from it, that when I was offered the chance of passing on what I’d learnt as a mentor I jumped at the opportunity. I accompanied BGH to Bullecourt in France to take part in a search for WW1 British tank remains. Whilst currently unable to partake fully in a physical capacity due to a recent operation, I was more than able to help with the finds processing and recording whilst passing on what I’ve learnt from my previous excavations to the newer members of the team. This was of huge benefit to me as I prepare to attend University to undertake an Archaeology degree with a view to working in the sector in the future. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities and guidance that I continue to receive from BGH, without it, I would not be functioning at the level I currently am.


Being part of the team at Bullecourt was amazing, as someone with a keen interest in History, its real hands on experience and a chance to get more in depth in our History that’s evolved over the years. And actually finding parts of a first war tank and being able to help preserve it for future generation and my own regiments history made is so worthwhile.

Also it was chance to put my own injuries aside and try forget the barriers I have to live with, for which Breaking Ground Heritage as been able to do while taking part in this dig, and also has made me overcome barriers both physically and mentally as well.

Peter Cosgrove
Ex Royal Tank Regiment.
Photography by Harvey Mills © Harvey Mills 2017. www.harveymills.com
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