The documentary Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars is about to start on BBC4 and promises to be a fascinating insight into the archaeology of the war underground on the Somme in 1916.
Part of the programme will apparently feature the Lochnagar Mine Crater, perhaps the most visited British mine crater today on the Western Front. But this was not always so.
In the inter-war period the Somme was visited by hundreds of thousands of battlefield pilgrims, many of whom came to La Boisselle and many of whom visited a mine crater there, but it wasn’t Lochnagar, but the Y Sap Mine Crater. This was a major ‘tourist location’ in the 1920s/30s as it was close to the Albert-Bapaume road and easily accessible from the main road, which Lochnagar was not. However by the 1970s the Y Sap crater was hardly visited and the owner filled it in; leading to Richard Dunning saving the Lochnagar Crater when that too was threatened with the site now preserved by the Friends of Lochnagar.
The second part of ‘WW1 Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig‘ will be broadcast on Channel 5 tonight at 8pm. This week the programme really goes underground as it looks at the dugouts, tunnels and mining system which was part of the Messines battlefield. These were all in an incredible state of good repair, as the photographs below show.
This image dates from January 1917 and shows a German materials dump in the centre of the village. Behind the Germans in the main square of Messines and the photo shows that even only a few months before the June 1917 Battle of Messines, much of the town was still standing. Looking at the equipment dumped here, one wonders how much of it was unearthed by the archaeologists!
The village of Messines was heavily defended by the Germans and the sizeable trench seen in the above image dating from early 1917 shows part of their defence network on the outskirts of the village.
In the next episode of WW1 Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig the team explore the underground war at Messines and during the dig Simon Verdegem and his team of archaeologists uncovered a previously unknown German tunnel network. It was quite something accessing tunnels that no-one had been down since 1918. The timber which lined the tunnels was in exceptional condition and it is hoped that some of the tunnel system will be reconstructed in a future Messines museum, due to open in 2014.
The German army occupied Messines at the end of the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914 and remained in possession of the village until the Battle of Messines in June 1917. The village stayed in good condition, but with every building damaged or partially destroyed, until June 1917 when the preliminary bombardment for the attack of the New Zealand Division destroyed everything. This image dates from the Spring of 1917 and shows a German communications centre in Messines, just off the main square.
The archaeology feature in tonight’s programme very much reflects this German occupation; from the artifacts found in the trenches through the uncovering of German dugouts and tunnels; the ‘Last Witness’ of the Great War, the landscape, had much to tell us on this dig and some genuinely new discoveries were made.
My new television series, WW1 Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig, starts this evening on Channel 5 and today there will some posts connected with the programme and the dig we followed for more than six months in Flanders.
As part of the research for the series I was able to source a number of original images showing the village of Messines during the German occupation before everything was destroyed and also showing some of the trenches. This image was one from a small collection showing the typical trench construction in the front line area of the battlefield west of Messines. This particular trench is Weißergraben and lead to the front line area close to where the New Zealand Memorial is now located. The steel door seen in the trench may well be a kiln door from the brick factory that was on the edge of the village.
The trench design and construction is particularly noteworthy as it pretty much reflected what the archaeologists found during the dig; this style of trench support, trench wall and trench floor were all found. This will all be seen in tonights episode, starting on Channel 5 at 20.00.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.