The Yser front north of Ypres is a forgotten sector of the Western Front. It linked the Ypres Salient with the Belgian coast and for most of its length the front lines straddled the Yser Canal; with the Belgian Army dug in on the west bank and the Germans on the opposite bank. Nearly 30,000 Belgian soldiers were killed on this front which remained pretty static for most of the Great War until the final offensives of 1918.
This photograph, from a series of stereocards, shows Belgian troops in a typical trench on the Yser front in early 1917. It is a fairly basic straight trench, not zig-zagged for extra protection, and with a basic duckboard floor. The trench is also more of a breastwork than a trench dug in the ground, as this pretty much reflected the flood conditions that prevailed on this part of the front where digging in on the surface was impossible. High sandbag walls protect the trench occupants, two of whom are seen here in typical Belgian uniforms of the period.
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.
Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq, was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire at the start of the Great War. With oil interests in the region, British troops were first despatched to the region in 1914 to prevent the Turks from interrupting the supply of oil, much of which was used by the Royal Navy. Gradually Mesopotamia, or Mespot, turned into a full-scale war with large numbers of British and Indian Army troops involved. In 1916 there was a major defeat at Kut, but gradually the war turned in Britain’s favour leading to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the region in 1918.
There were trenches and battles in Mespot that saw some of the earliest forms of British desert warfare. Here two soldiers of an Army Service Corps unit have constructed a field stove in a trench system. The goggles they wear were required kit in Mespot where sandy desert winds could reduce visibility very quickly and sand particles blind soldiers very quickly. One author called Mespot ‘The Bastard War‘ and it is clear that conditions were tough here for British troops, up against an often underestimated but formidable enemy like the Ottoman Turks.
The arrival of thousands of Canadian troops in 1914 was a welcome addition to the forces of Great Britain and the Empire, but with the expansion of the British Army at the same time, there were accommodation issues when the Canadians first arrived. Sent to Salisbury Plain, some of the original billets were quite simple, but as the size of the CEF expanded, their camp did as well.
Training continued at a high pace and while many original CEF men were ex-regular soldiers or former members of the Canadian Militia, one thing they rapidly had to learn more about, as the war on the Western Front went static during the winter of 1914/15, was digging in. Here a group of Canadians are practicing trench digging in quite good ground. Within months they would be in the mud of Flanders, a very different experience from trench digging on Salisbury Plain during that first winter of the war.