Changing Veterans’ Futures through Digging up the Past: The Inspiring Story of Operation Nightingale

Uncover the story of Operation Nightingale, the first and largest wellbeing initiative for military servicemen and women using archaeology, and discover how excavating an archaeological trench can be the perfect way for armed forces veterans to begin digging their way out of the trenches of their previous experiences on their journey to recovery.

By the Oxbow Books team | 5 min read

“It is a hot July day and a soldier lies prone in the dusty earth. He is a Royal Engineer and his duties include disarming explosive devices buried in the soil. He works slowly, carefully, ensuring that no mistakes are made; his face a picture of concentration. And yet, this isn’t Afghanistan or Iraq. He is working on an archaeological excavation at Bullecourt, France, and the battlefield he is helping to excavate was last fought over in 1917. He is uncovering a twisted and frayed mass of leather components, with rusted metal fittings throughout – all that remains of what was once a boot. A careful examination of this object as the mud is slowly scraped away shows that, within this boot, a foot is still in place, the bones yellowed and dry.

Royal Engineer veteran John excavating the remains of an Allied boot at Bullecourt. © Harvey Mills

As is standard procedure for such sites in France, the work is stopped while the mayoress and police are contacted (making sure it is not evidence of a local murder) and then the Commonwealth War Graves Commission come to collect the remains. A representative from the latter informs our dig team that the bones will be buried in what is called a ‘scant remains’ grave. A headstone will proclaim the burial to be of remains of soldiers from the First World War rather than an ‘unknown soldier’ as, of course, the soldier ‘might have survived the loss of his foot’.

This, however, we already know as our archaeologist has only one foot himself. Oh, and one eye – the results of his military service; such are the unique circumstances of Operation Nightingale. This book tells the story of the genesis of our programme and the aims of using archaeology to aid the recovery of military personnel.”


The short extract above is taken from Broken Pots, Mending Lives. the first book dedicated to the work of Operation Nightingale. It encapsulates the unique nature of this project and the special empathy veterans experience by working on digs often involving conflict archaeology.

Veterans John (Royal Engineers) and Paul (Royal Artillery) on the discovery of the fired 6-pounder tank shell at the Bullecourt dig. © Harvey Mills

Operation Nightingale began in 2011 within the Ministry of Defence, aimed at using archaeology to help armed forces personnel recovering from injuries sustained whilst serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Locations of Operation Nightingale digs to date have taken the team from Bronze Age sites of Salisbury Plain to the prison ships of Rat Island in Portsmouth, and 20th-century battlefield sites, including a Spitfire, practice trenchworks, and a First World War tank in Bullecourt, France.

Twelve years on from its inception it is still going strong. Having helped hundreds of British servicemen and women, it has since expanded to include veterans of older conflicts and other nations, including from the USA, Poland and Australia. The UK programme has also helped inspire an international movement of veteran-focused archaeological initiatives. For example, the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR) began life as Operation Nightingale USA, and continues to go from strength-to-strength.

Just some of the artefacts recovered from an Operation Nightingale dig in 2021 at an Anglo-Saxon site in Barrow Clump, Salisbury Plain. Left: amethyst and glass beads, silver rings and parts of cowrie shells. Right: The first intact pot the team recovered from the Clump, accompanying a male burial alongside an iron spear. © Harvey Mills

This book is the story of the veterans and archaeologists involved, of their incredible discoveries, and of their own inspiring journeys of recovery.

A sense of what individuals gain from the digs comes through in spades (excuse the pun) throughout the book. Some of the veteran volunteers have significant physical disabilities as a result of injuries sustained in the military. For others the battle is intensely psychological. Many of the veterans involved in Operation Nightingale suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For some, it is the sense of calm that comes with focusing on a seemingly repetitive task that has been transformational. Others reference the community spirit and team-work on digs as being instrumental.

“The banter on the digs is very important for the advancement of the individual. It feels like we are still in the military family but with a safety net as everyone knows that we have issues still to deal with.”

Jeanette Flitney (bomb disposal officer, Royal Logistics Corps)

The British-based digs are often located near active sites used by the military, and so the archaeologists and organisers have to pay close attention to the present-day environment – for example, gunfire may be a regular sound – as well as sensitivities around discovering human remains and other military artefacts that may trigger a particular response from individuals. Many of the veterans featured in the book talk about how managing their thoughts and actions around these events has formed part of their own recovery journey.

Pete Cosgrove is one of the veterans who has benefitted from the digs. A Tank Crewman with Egypt Squadron, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, he was wounded by an IED in Afghanistan in 2009. He joined the dig at Bullecourt, where the team discovered part of a World War I tank from the Battle of Arras along with remains of two soldiers. His reflection is very poignant:

“After we had finished on that last day, I left the site with a real buzzing feeling, and felt we had achieved something amazing. Finding the part of 796’s track and other items made my week … though finding the remains was emotional and brought the reality of war home again to me. [I felt] a big sense of achievement both physically and mentally, being able to overcome those demons which I was hiding, with the help of a great bunch of supportive people who are friends today.”

Pete Cosgrove (Egypt Squadron, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment)

Throughout the book we hear from the veterans themselves about their involvement with particular digs. Pictured above, inset: Pete Cosgrove (Tank Crewman with the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment) on operations, and pages from Broken Pots, Mending Lives, reflecting on his experiences of excavating a First World War tank at Bullecourt.

Binding everyone together is a deep appreciation of the past and the incredible heritage lying in our landscapes, a connection with long-gone generations of ancestors, the pleasure of teamwork and community, and the healing power of archaeology.

Richard Osgood is a founder of Operation Nightingale and the author of Broken Pots, Mending Lives. He brings a wealth of excavation experience to his role as Senior Archaeologist for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation within the UK’s Ministry of Defence. He acknowledges that it surprises some people that the MOD employs archaeologists, but given that they own 1% of the UK mainland, parts of nine World Heritage Sites, over 700 Scheduled Monuments protected by law, and 800 plus Listed Buildings, there is clearly a lot of important heritage to look after whilst still facilitating the military training requirements.

Amongst Osgood’s research interests, which include the North European Bronze Age and the archaeology of conflict, is a deep-rooted interest in the psychological benefits of archaeology. He says:

“We will see what seems to work for our participants, how archaeology may be uniquely placed to aid their restoration – perhaps the open air, the teamwork, the physical exercise, the frequent idyllic settings of the sites and their proximity to nature, the fact that there really is a job for everyone. Ours is the story of people – both in the past and today.”

Richard Osgood, founder of Operation Nightingale
and author of Broken Pots, Mending Lives

Author Richard Osgood with Professor Alice Roberts, presenter of BBC’s The Big Dig and Digging for Britain and Channel 4’s Fortress Britain, who has written the book’s foreword. © Rare Television Ltd

Whilst veterans’ wellbeing is at the core of Operation Nightingale, these are far from being “vanity” digs for the sake of creating a project.

A strong archaeological motivation has been instrumental in running successful excavations, with professional protocols followed for documenting all findings, and involvement from a network of academics and commercial archaeology organisations, as well as charities. Osgood notes the importance of academic backing to provide credibility – as well as identifying the opportunity academic partners bring for further study and ensuring the widest dissemination of results.

One of the charities which works closely with Operation Nightingale is Breaking Ground Heritage. This community interest company, run by military veterans, was developed to work alongside Operation Nightingale to deliver positive outcomes for projects that utilise heritage and archaeology as a recovery pathway. It was set up by Richard ‘Dickie’ Bennett, a former Royal Marine serving with 45 Commando who was forced to leave the military in 2011 due to spinal injuries suffered in Afghanistan.

Dickie became so interested in archaeology after joining an Operation Nightingale dig at Salisbury Plain that he went on to gain a first-class degree in archaeology at the University of Essex, followed by a master’s degree. Through Breaking Ground Heritage, he continues to work within this important sector.

David Ulke, formerly a Royal Air Force Officer, is another veteran whose involvement with Operation Nightingale has led them to study or work in the fields of archaeology and heritage management as a result. He joined an excavation of a Roman site at Caerwent back in 2012 and has not looked back since. He earned a degree in Archaeology in 2018 from the University of Leicester, where he is now an Honorary Visiting Fellow, no less. He continues to work in the field and has published research on the subject of wellbeing with archaeology.

A number of universities, including Leicester and Winchester, have also been instrumental in establishing long-terms relationships with Operation Nightingale and associated organisations, offering discounted or fee-waiver options for veterans wishing to pursue higher education studies in the field.

Left: Professor Alice Roberts discusses one of the graves at Avon Camp with former submariner, John Bennett. John is another veteran who has since begun an archaeology degree and pursued a career in archaeology or heritage management. Right: From left to right: former Royal Marine and founder of Breaking Ground Heritage, Dickie Bennett; archaeologist Dr Sarah Ashbridge; and forensic anthropologist Dr Nick Márquez-Grant at one of the Rat Island (Portsmouth) workshops. Both photographs © Harvey Mills.

Tailored initiatives to support veterans are needed now more than ever.

The UK government announced an additional £33 million funding package for veterans over the following three years in their spring 2023 budget, including £10 million to be used by the Office for Veteran’s Affairs to increase the service and engagement provided to veterans. There are undoubtedly many that need support. In 2021 alone, SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, offered practical, financial, and emotional support to a sobering 65,000+ serving members and veterans of UK Armed Forces (regulars and reserves), and their families.

“There are many reasons to compliment and thank Richard for his book. His work leading Op Nightingale is having a positive impact on the lives of veterans – some with physical wounds, some with mental scars and some with both – as they work alongside professional archaeologists on digs across the country. That is the most important outcome. It is directly helping the recovery of our former servicemen and servicewomen.”

Lieutenant General (retd) Sir Andrew Gregory KBE CB DL,
the Controller of SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity

Being part of a community with a shared experience is important for volunteers in their recovery journeys. Above: the team get together at the end of the project at Bullecourt to say a few words for the fallen. © Harvey Mills

Top left: Paul Hemingway and Paul Barnsley at Littlecote House, home of the famous HQ Company of 506th Airborne in 1944. Right: The Royal Air Force fly over the 2022 excavation as the team look on. Bottom left: Veterans Richard Thompson and Elaine Corner look at the completed Bronze Age roundhouse at Butser. All © Harvey Mills

Broken Pots, Mending Lives is a celebration of archaeology and discovery. It shines a spotlight on the inspirational individuals involved through personal contributions from many of the veterans who have directly benefitted from the programme. Superb photography by Operation Nightingale stalwart, Harvey Mills, captures the power of archaeology and a sense of how connecting with generations past is helping to change veterans’ futures.

Broken Pots, Mending Lives is available now from Oxbow Books at a special pre-publication price for a limited time only.

RRP: £25.00 | Special Price £20.00

Click here to order

Further reading:

If this post has whetted your appetite to find out more about Operation Nightingale, we have included a handful of additional reading links below. Broken Pots, Mending Lives also includes comprehensive information about the sites used for digs and the individuals and organisations involved in making this programme a success.

* Dig in: an evaluation of the role of archaeological fieldwork for the improved wellbeing of military veterans. By Paul Everill, Richard Bennett & Karen Burnell. Research Article published in ANTIQUITY (2020, Vol. 94 (373): 212–227).

* Breaking Ground Heritage: developed to work alongside Operation Nightingale to deliver positive outcomes for projects that utilise heritage and archaeology as a recovery pathway. Their website includes excavation reports and guidance for setting up and measuring effectiveness of wellbeing-through-heritage projects. Military personnel interested in taking part in future Operation Nightingale digs can find out more via the- Breaking Ground Heritage website.

* Heritage for Heroes: an initiative established by the University of Winchester and the charity Help for Heroes, which enables British former service personnel to study archaeology.

* American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR).

* BBC News: Butser Ancient Farm Bronze Age house built by military veterans (October 2021).

* Current Archaeology magazine: Breaking ground at Barrow Clump (February 2018).

* Heritage Health and Welling report from The Heritage Alliance (Operation Nightingale, pp. 20-21; Breaking Ground Heritage, pp. 46-47; Waterloo Uncovered, pp.70-71).