With recent interest in Birdsong and the fascination with the war underground, there is a tendency to forget that mine warfare was not just restricted to Flanders and the Somme. It took place on many other parts of the Western Front and some of the Great War battlefield’s most impressive mine craters are in the French sector, not where the British Army fought.
This image shows a mine crater in the Champagne battlefields near Reims. The chalk of the Champagne was similar to Picardy, so it proved to be well suited to tunnelling operations, especially as the front here was static for so long. The Germans are wearing Stahlhelms so this image likely dates from 1917 or 1918; perhaps during the German offensive here in 1918 when much of the area was overrun until the final French offensive broke the German defences in the autumn of 1918.
Tonight the long awaited dramatisation of Sebastian Faulk’s novel Birdsong will be broadcast on BBC1. The Great War is very much the focus of the story and in particular the war beneath the Western Front involving the men who served in Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers. As part of the research for the programme the actors visited the current archaeological work being undertaken at La Boisselle.
This rather tatty and crumpled image I found tucked in a book on WW1 tunnelling I rescued from a second-hand bookshop many years ago. Nothing is written on it, but the background is consistent with many photographs I have that I know were taken on the Somme. The men in the photograph are all Royal Engineers, who formed the Tunnellers, and some of them have the look of a hard, tough life on their faces. Who these men were we will probably never know but they look typical of the sort of men that fought that underground, subterranean war under the Somme; older, tougher, and used to hard physical labour. Were these beloved Sappers of a young officer who commanded them? Were they mates who shared that time in Picardy? The photograph, as do so many, offers more questions than it answers.
But whatever, these are the faces of the men of Birdsong, which following on the heels of War Horse, has certainly brought WW1 into the media spotlight and made many pause a thought for that generation of the Great War.