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.
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.
Aerial images of the Great War give an insight into the conflict only matched by the panoramas taken at ground level by the Royal Engineers. Aerial imagery was made by the Royal Flying Corps using cameras normally fixed to the side of the aircraft and developed with the print being the same size as the very large glass negative, giving it incredible resolution. Such images are often so clear that even human beings can be picked out on some photographs.
This image taken of the Bellewaarde Ridge in July 1917 – just prior to the Third Battle of Ypres – shows the level of destruction in the Ypres Salient by this time. Part of the old Menin Road is visible cutting across the lower part of the image, along with a massive network of trenches and thousands of shell craters. In the top left-hand corner the mine craters on the ridge can be seen; many of these date back to tunnelling operations here in 1915 and 1916, and some still survive today.
More than another year of war was to come after this image was taken so that by the end of 1918 the whole landscape around the city of Ypres was a vast wilderness of shell holes and smashed ground where no-one lived again until well into the early 1920s. Only from the air can that true level of destruction really be grasped.
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.