December 7 2013 Latest news:
Nick Ames, Reporter
Friday, May 25, 2012
Opened up on The Somme
A maze of tunnels under the bloody World War One battleground of the Somme in France is gradually coming to light, thanks to a dedicated team of archaeologists.
As shots and shells rained down on the trenches above, tunnellers – many recruited from the coalfields of Kent – fought their own private war in the dark earth as each side tried to, literally, undermine the other.
Lost for more than 90 years, the passages once led beneath No Man’s Land, to a world where soldiers from Britain, France and Germany burrowed, listened for the enemy, and laid lethal explosives in the hope of helping the attacks above ground.
And sometimes they came into conflict with one another, fighting in almost unbelievably claustrophobic conditions with any weapons or tools which came to hand.
Today, the same underground routes are leading the Anglo-French La Boisselle – the name of the village close by – Study Group, and are sometimes open for tours.
The bodies of more than 30 men are still entombed there, killed by collapses and explosions in tunnels which run beneath an area a quarter of a mile square, nicknamed the Glory Hole by the men who fought here.
The La Boisselle Project has been working from photos of the frontlines and from detailed plans drawn up by the tunnelling companies brought in to do the work. Most of the villagers knew there had been tunnels, but the entrances had been filled in or destroyed by shelling.
But after a collapse revealed a small opening into a gallery, work on the excavations started
Military historian Peter Barton, from Faversham, is leading the exploration and is also making a film which is due to be shown on BBC TV early next year.
He said: “The chalk in which the tunnels were constructed has similar properties to coal, so miners from Kent would have been among those chosen to do the work.
“We have cleared the passageway down to a shaft which leads deeper into the network. The plan is to get a team further down in a metal cage.
“We don’t know what we will find there, but have already found graffiti carved by the troops. We also know there are bodies still entombed in the earth.
“It’s been a moving experience. We know the names of these men, we even have their photos.
“I can’t help thinking of the tragedies which unfolded below. It’s impossible to imagine the effort involved in this work, and the stresses the men worked under.”
The horrors of tunnel warfare form part of the Sebastian Foulkes novel Birdsong, recently dramatised for the BBC. To create a realistic portrayal of this deadly underground battle for the adaptation, the producers built an accurate replica of part of the vast network of tunnels.
Mr Barton was employed as a consultant on the show and supplied Birdsong’s director, Philip Martin, with scale drawings and plans from his excavations.
Mr Martin said: “We tried very hard to get the details right. You have to remember, this was a massive industrial process, they were sawing beams and planks to exact proportions above ground. It was the British Empire at its peak.”
Close to the site is one of the memorable sites of the Battle of the Somme, Lochnagar Crater.
A huge mine was exploded under a German strongpoint on the morning of July 1, 1916, at 7.28 am, to signal the start of the Battle of the Somme. The explosion, which blew the German troops to pieces, was heard in London.
Debris rose some 4,000ft, causing a hole in the earth 300ft across and 90ft deep
Shockwaves from the explosion broke the bones of some of the British soldiers waiting to advance and ruptured internal organs.
The attack was an initial disaster, but the area was successfully seized two days later.
■ Further information about the excavation can be found at:www.laboisselleproject.com.
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