WW1 Photos Centenary Website: 2014-2018 By Paul Reed

New TV Series: Messines – WW1 Tunnels of Death

As some readers of my work will know I lived on the Somme for a decade. Aside from being surrounded by a wealth of history and battlefields, during that time the Old Front Line was literally on my doorstep as every time I tilled the kitchen garden shrapnel balls and bullets came up. In the village people brought us items unearthed by their ploughs and one day someone turned up with the remains of a Canadian soldier who had been found in the sunken lane behind our house. The archaeology of Great War was very vivid during that time and for six months of this year I found myself reliving some of that as I once again explored beneath the battlefields of the Western Front with my old friend, television producer John Hayes-Fisher.

Simon Verdegem

This time our work brought us to Messines in Flanders, part of the Ypres Salient. Here for four years the front went from a war of movement to static trenches, gas, tanks and mine warfare: Messines was almost a microcosm of the whole Great War. Here we followed a project being undertaken by a group of professional archaeologists from Belgian Ordnance Clearance Company ADeDe. Headed up by Simon Verdegem, a young archaeologists with a passion for the Great War who had previously worked on digs such as the A19 Project, his team planned to work one step ahead of a major development: the placement of a massive water pipe and drainage system around the village of Messines. This would take them across several square kilometres of battlefield, making it the biggest professional dig on the Western Front in many years, perhaps ever.

Using Technology to find the Trenches

We spent our six months in Flanders Fields following Simon and his team unearth a whole array of different trench systems: from communication trenches, to fighting trenches to infantry shelters and even concrete bunkers. This included one of the deepest intact trenches ever found in Flanders and along with it an amazing array of personal artefacts. The work was not without its dangers and a team of bomb disposal experts were continually on-hand to remove dangerous ordnance prior to its recovery.

Battlefield Archaeology

The upcoming series on Channel 5 entitled ‘WW1 Tunnels of Death’ will give people an insight into what this fascinating and unique project has uncovered, and the story is assisted by numerous Great War experts such as Alex Churchill, Professor Peter Doyle, Josh Levine, Major Alexander Turner and David Whithorn. Two other versions have been made for BBC Worldwide and Arte, and there is also a US Version for the PBS Channel. The Channel 5 version will be shown at 20.00 on 8th and 15th November 2012.

Messines Dugout

It was a fascinating year back on and beneath the Old Front Line; we found ourselves in trenches, dugouts and tunnels, and looking at items that had not seen the light of day for nearly a century. But it wasn’t just about artefacts; during the dig the remains of a Commonwealth soldier was found and he will later be buried in one of the nearby cemeteries. He was one of thousands who lived and died in those trenches and dugouts we explored; voices now silent, and it is only the landscape and what lies beneath which can still bear fresh testimony to the story that was the First World War.

The Dig Site

15 responses

  1. Great job, Paul! I am anxious to watch this. Do you know when the series will be shown in France on Arte?


    21/10/2012 at 08:20

    • sommecourt

      We don’t have a transmission date for Arte yet but when I know, will place it on Twitter.

      21/10/2012 at 09:18

  2. Pingback: Upcoming Ch5 Series Messines - WW1 Tunnels of Death - World War 2 Talk

  3. This looks amazing. Just what we need in Your Family Tree. Looking forward to tweets…

    21/10/2012 at 14:01

  4. David Smith

    When will this special be shown in Australia. My grand father fought in the Somme so I am particularly interested. Thanks.

    21/10/2012 at 20:46

    • sommecourt

      There is a BBC Worldwide version which will go to Australia but I have no idea when at present.

      21/10/2012 at 21:08

  5. Richard McComb

    Are there any Midlands/West Midlands connections to the research team?

    22/10/2012 at 09:01

    • sommecourt

      Part of what we have looked at is the war underground and many West Midlands miners served in the tunnels of WW1.

      22/10/2012 at 09:47

      • Richard McComb

        Thanks. I’m a Birmingham based journalist. Always on the look out for West Midlands WW1 stories. Please get in touch if you have any recent discoveries

        24/10/2012 at 22:09

  6. Paul Bramham

    Any connection with men of 11th Btn (Lonsdales) The Border Regiment? – some of whom became tunnellers ( those who survived 1 July 1916 anyway!). I know that graffiti bearing the names of men from that battalion was recently found on the walls of excavated tunnels.

    22/10/2012 at 12:45

  7. Marion McLean

    My grandfather (a piper with the Seaforth Highlanders)was shot through the face at Ypres and, as a result, lost his bagpipes – his biggest regret. Those pipes will be out there still……

    06/11/2012 at 22:46

  8. Pingback: Messines: In The Trenches « Great War Photos

  9. Gareth McComb

    My Grandfather, Hugh McComb, fought and was killed at the Battle of Messines on 7th June 1917. He is buried in the Messines Cemetery which I have visited a few times, most recently in December 2012.

    He was a Sergeant in the 10th Battalion of the Royal Inniskillings (The Derrys)

    Gareth McComb

    24/05/2013 at 21:35

  10. Gareth McComb

    Below I share a piece of my family history associated with The Battle of Messines, this letter was only revealed recently by a still unknown source to me and to my knowledge my Granfather’s courageous act of bravery was not recognised by the authorities.


    A warrant officer of the 10th Inniskillings (Derry Volunteers), Ulster Division in a letter to a friend referring to the Messines battle, in which Sergeant McCombe was killed, said ? The Ulster Division have behaved in a manner second to none. Our battalion has done fine work, indeed. The positions we took were thought to be impregnable, but with our artillery behind and our infantry leading we reached our objective with very few casualties. A Brigade General, who was captured by one of the 10th, said the Irishmen came with such dash and gallantry that he was completely taken unawares, and he described the attack as one of the finest he had seen in his experience. When the mines went up one would have thought the earth had opened up, but this was only part of it. The next instant you could see the boys climbing over the parapet and rushing for their nearest opponent. Down the Germans went, for our boys had not much time to take prisoners. This was left to others told off for that duty. The boys are still in action, and have never lost an inch of the ground captured, although the enemy used his best troops against them in counter attacks. The Irish Division displayed great gallantry, and are thoroughly worthy of all that has been said about them. It was very sad about Sergeant McCombe. He was a fine soldier, and one that cannot well be replaced. It was when leading his platoon into action that he met his death. His officer had been wounded, and he at once rushed forward and took over command. Such deeds like these are worthy of the highest honour, because it happened at a time when we were being pressed. Such pluck and daring as shown by his fine example encouraged his men so much that they would have fought to the last man, and I think it can be truly said that battles are won by those who fall.

    30/05/2013 at 12:44

  11. Gareth McComb

    Watched the “Messines” episode this morning on Channel 5.

    Fantastic work and very poignant given my Grandfather’s death at the battle

    Well done team


    30/05/2013 at 12:53

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