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We talk to one of the UK’s most exciting

military historians, with a unique hands-

on approach to history, combining

archaeological and experimental techniques

with unparalleled archival research and

crowd-sourcing to reveal what it was really

like to be on the frontline of history.

MEET EXPERT: Andy Robertshaw

Andy was lead historical consultant

for Spielberg’s film adaptation of

War Horse, which he also starred in.

He is a regular consultant and on-

screen expert for a host of TV and

radio shows, including Time Team,

The Trench Detectives and Who Do

You Think You Are?

He has spearheaded numerous

archaeological investigations along

the Western Front and is currently

leading a new archaeological

project, focussing on the Somme

area ahead of the 2016 centenary.

He is an Honorary Lecturer at

University College London and

regularly consults the British

Army on historical matters, as well

as serving as Forensic Trauma

specialist for the Norwegian Army,

and regularly lecturing in North

America and Canada.

He has written numerous books,

including Ghosts on the Somme,

24hr Trench and

The Somme: 1 July 1916.

How did you first develop an

interest in military history?

I grew up surrounded by people

who had served in the Great War.

My grandfather, John Andrew

Robertshaw, volunteered in 1914

and was turned down due to a

heart condition. Called-up in 1916

he served to the end of the war

and was wounded three times. On

my mothers side my grandfather

was injured in training in 1918, his

sister lost her boyfriend and my

grandmother worked at the shell

filling factor at Barnbow in Leeds.

She was meant to start work on the

10.00pm shift on 5th December 1916,

but stayed at home with flu. The

accident occurred at 1037 when a

fusing machine detonated 4.5inch

shells. The machine in question was

hers and was being operated by a

friend who was killed together with

34 others. During my childhood the

Great war was ‘current affairs’ rather

than ‘history’ and relatives ensured

that I had some idea of what it was

like. However it was what they didn’t

tell me that was fascinating.

Was there any particular incident

that prompted you to develop that

interest into a career?

My school in Romford had a war

games club and the history teacher

Alan Fibbins set up a unit of the

Sealed Knot, Suren’s Lifeguards. I

now live five miles from the site of

my first ever re-enactment event

which I attended in 1999. Once

I saw battle re-enactment I was

hooked and decided to be a military

historian. However, the turning

point was meeting the author John

Adair who asked me for my opinion

of what happened at the battle of

Cheriton in 1644; that crystallized

my determination to make military

history my career.

Battlefield archaeology is an

exciting facet of military history, was

this something you wanted to do

from the very beginning?

Archaeology came to me rather late

in life via Two Men in a Trench and

it was whilst I was working with Neil

Oliver and Tony Pollard that the BBC

asked me to arrange an archeological

project to discover sites related

to Wilfred Owen. This opportunity

led to ‘Finding the Fallen’, ‘Trench

Detectives’, ‘Time Team’, et al.

What has been the single most

satisfying discovery in your

archaeological work so far?

Human remains that can be

identified. Turning one of ‘The

Missing’ into a person with a history,

family and story is an amazing


You have forged a career as a

successful military historian and

can count yourself amongst notable

names like Martin van Creveld and

Robert Citino. Was there a point

where you said to yourself, “I’ve

done it!”?

I am not sure that I have. There is

always more to do and you are only

as good as your last book, project or


Your archaeological work has

resulted in the identification of five

missing First World War soldiers

and allowed them to be buried

with military honours, how useful

can battlefield archaeology be to a

military genealogist?

Basically the process is identical to

the methods used by genealogists

but in reverse. Family historians

begin with a bit of evidence about a

known individual and work forward

to find the evidence. With remains

found in archaeology you start with

the body and associated artefacts

to identify him as an individual and

then work back towards the records

connected to him.

Have you traced any of your own

family through military genealogy


Yes. My grandfather John Andrew,

who served in the Manchester

Regiment and also the East

Yorkshires. Sadly his service record

was lost in 1940, like so many, but I

was able to use a range of sources

to reconstruct the short military

career of my grandfather. Two years

ago I took my father to France

and Belgium to walk in his father’s

footsteps. The stories he told when

prompted by places and events

helped me to get a better picture of

my grandfather’s war.

In July this year it will be 100 years

since the beginning of the Battle

of the Somme. Some of your best

work relates to this battle such as

your books Somme 1916 and Ghosts

of the Somme: Filming the Battle,

June-July 1916, are you working on

anything special to commemorate

the centenary of the engagement?

I am working with the BBC on a

new documentary on the filming

of the battle to coincide with the

release of the book ‘Ghosts on the

Somme: Filming the battle June-July

1916’; released in paper back. I have

already recorded a programme for

BBC Wales on the Battle of Mametz

Wood in July 1916 which will be

broadcast for the anniversary. I will

be on the Somme from the end of

June, running guided tours ‘In the

Footsteps of Malins’. In addition I will

be running a commemorative event

at 7.30am on the morning of 1st July

in the Sunken Lane at Beaumont

Hamel. that afternoon I am arranging

a guided walk from Maricourt to

Montauban to commemorate the

capture of the latter village on the

first day of the battle. Full details

can be found on the Battlefield Partnerships website.

You were the military adviser on

Steven Spielberg’s Warhorse (2011)

which must have been an amazing

experience! Can you tell us what

that involved and whether we’ll be

seeing you attached to any other

films in the future?

I was involved with the film from the

early drafts of the screen play to the

last day of filming. As the military

consultant I was asked questions by

Steven Spielberg on every detail of

military procedure and even briefed

the actor on the attitudes and beliefs

of the period. I additionally had the

opportunity to appear in the film in

more than one scene.

Finally, for budding military

historians out there, do you have

any advice on how to get to where

you are now?

John Adair told me in 1974 that the

way to get on in the field was to

get a degree, work with, or for, the

military or an academic body, and

walk the ground. Critically have an

enthusiasm for the subject and want

to communicate with people about

your passion for military history.

See Andy’s next event: 29– 30 May Wrest At War – English Heritage Wrest Park Andy will be featuring as part of the weekend’s programme of events uk/visit/places/wrest-park/ history/wrest-park-first- world-war/ HIRE AN EXPERT RESEARCHER HERE