It looks incongruous across the dank, misty farmland north of Ypres. A large party marquee erected amongst the winter stubble; but it marks one of the most ambitious battlefield archaeology projects ever attempted.
I last visited this farm a year ago, on that occasion soggy from recent rain and swept by chilly easterly winds. Across that landscape a small survey team were mapping what lay below, using ground-penetrating radar.
Ninety years after Flanders was torn apart by war, most of the battlefield has now disappeared. Yet, beneath the soil hidden reminders lie undisturbed.
Daily life under fire forced the warring armies to seek safety underground; hundreds of shelters and headquarters were constructed in this sector alone.
The archaeologists have spent years searching for one such example – the Vampir Dugout – from where a Brigadier General and his staff planned for attacks that so often proved futile, and costly.
The team have used every technique available to them from radar, to dowsing, from spades to excavators. Finally, it was local information that led to a crucial discovery.
The army tunnellers who spent three months digging the shelter, did so using a 40 foot deep shaft, today it’s open once more. Now British experts with their Belgian counterparts are preparing to enter the tunnel complex.
Gazing down at the tiny figures at the base of the shaft, Peter Barton, whose research has been central to the project pointed out timber that looked in remarkable condition.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. This shaft was constructed more than 90 years ago, and you wouldn’t know it. We now know that the tunnels are lined with steel, and have survived intact.”
Buckets of silt are still being winched to the surface yielding the first evidence of those who worked and slept here; a shiny clip of British rifle ammunition, a water container, machine parts, even a brass safety pin.
Far more lies beyond, but there are hazards to be overcome. Outside the tent, at a safe distance, a pile of rusting unexploded shells awaits disposal.
In the tunnels where pumps once ran night and day, thousands of gallons of water have accumulated, a lake that needs to be dry before the real archaeology can begin.
The team describe it as like exploring an under sea wreck without the diving suits. Their work, deep below the old trench lines has barely begun.
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Note: There is a regular feature by battlefield archaeologist, Tony Pollard, in Skermish: The Living History Magazine. No.58 April 2008 has an article by him, from his excavation of Vampir Dugout, pp. 8-10.