Exploring the tunnels under the Western Front

Western FrontThe common image of the Western Front in World War One is of muddy trenches and artillery barrages. That was certainly the experience of most soldiers. But while huge armies slugged it out in the mud and ruin of France and Belgium, another war was going on underground. Sappers from both sides dug tunnels under enemy trenches, packed them with explosives, and blew them up.

The explosions were huge, like this one the British detonated under the German position on Hawthorn Ridge on 1 July 1916. The explosion used 40,000 pounds of high explosives and marked the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.

Sapping was extremely dangerous. Tunnels collapsed or got blown up by enemy mines. Sometimes mines intersected one another and there were hellish fights in the near darkness. Two good fictional portrayals of this war-beneath-a-war are the novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and the Australian film Beneath Hill 60.

Now part of that underground battlefield is being studied by a team of British archaeologists. After detailed research in archives of several nations they’ve pinpointed a network of British and German tunnels under the French town of La Boisselle and have tracked down who fought there and when. They even know where some of these poor fellows got buried alive.

Right now the team is using ground-penetrating radar to map the tunnels and will being excavating in October. Some tunnels can still be entered while others are too unstable or have collapsed. Eventually the site will be opened up as a museum commemorating those who fought underneath the Western Front.

[Photo courtesy UK government]