Western Front battlefield sees most detailed ever study
The tunnellers are situated beneath privately-owned land in the rural village of La Boisselle, northern France, which has remained eerily untouched since First World War hostilities ceased in 1918.
These “sappers”, mainly professional miners from Britain’s collieries, were tasked with the terrifyingly dangerous job of digging beneath enemy trenches, packing high explosives and blowing them up. At times they were just yards away from Germans carrying out the same job underground.
La Boisselle was of huge strategic importance when the British launched the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 — in which 420,000 British soldiers were killed from a total of 1.5 million total casualties – as it stood on the main axis of the attack.
Historian Peter Barton said La Boisselle was the “holy grail” for historians, containing the “complete evolution” of trench warfare.
“We’ll know the Germans who killed the British and French, and vice versa – it’s the most supremely researched piece of battlefield on the Western Front,” he said.
After six years of painstaking documentary studies by the historian Simon Jones, researchers managed to pinpoint the precise locations and depths at which each man was lost, how they died and most of their names.
But they could do nothing until the French family who has owned the land since the 1920s, decided to open it up to research last May.
Mr Jones, a former curator at the Royal Engineers Museum, said the dig was crucial to complete the stories of the 179th and 185th Tunnelling Companies who worked at the Glory Hole, as they called it.
“Although we know a great deal about the lives of soldiers in World War One, these men have left very few clues as to their experience or feelings,” he said.
Through war diaries, tunnel plans and records, Mr Jones has identified 25 of the 28 British and all 10 French tunnellers at the site. The number of Germans remains unclear.
One victim was Sapper John Lane, 45, from Tipton in Staffordshire, a married father-of-four killed along with four others 80ft underground on 22 November 1915.
His great grandson, Chris Lane, 45, from Redditch in Worcestershire, said he had been gripped to learn about his relative’s fate.
“It’s important to know your past, one small incident for one family is history for lots of other people,” he said.
Archaeologists and historians from Britain, France and Germany intend to preserve the area as a permanent memorial to the fallen. As sapping was long a state secret, the men did not get the recognition they deserved at the time.
The task of mapping the tunnels and trenches with ground penetrating radar has begun, with digging due to start in October.
Some open tunnel sections have already been inspected and are remarkably well preserved.
Researchers intend to leave the bodies undisturbed in the collapsed tunnels, but any others found in trenches will be reburied in accordance with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Bomb disposal experts will be at hand to defuse the probably abundant unexploded ordnance they come across.
They expect to unearth a “time capsule” containing a wealth of untouched artefacts, including graffiti on the walls, poetry, bottles of drink.
The project is expected to take five to 10 years and the site will ultimately be opened to the public.
WWI underground: Unearthing the hidden tunnel war [pics and maps]