Archaeologists Study the Battle of the Somme Battlefield
Tunneling through the crumbling rock towards the German trenches 80ft above, Sapper John Lane must have feared he was digging his own tomb.
Beside him in the cramped underground cavern, lit only by candles, Sapper Ezekiel Parkes swung his pickaxe into the chalk face and hoped the enemy miners in their own tunnels might not hear.
Close friends, the two Black Country men had joined up together in Tipton, West Midlands, when the First World War generals had appealed for professional colliers to help on France's Western Front.
For months John, 47, Ezekiel, 37, and hundreds of others had waged the secret underground war together, beneath the mud at La Boisselle.
And they would be buried together, for ever, when, at 1.35am on November 22, 1915, German tunnellers detonated a charge just 15ft away, setting off the 5,900lb British charge, bringing down the roof of the British tunnel and flooding the cut-off chamber with poisonous gas.
Historian Peter Barton:
They would not be the last to die in their hellish underworld. But as the battle at ground level reached a bloody conclusion and the war came to an end, the world above them moved on. For decades their battlefield was left to nature.
Now, 95 years after the start of the Battle of the Somme, archaeologists have begun the most detailed ever study of a Western Front battlefield after being allowed the first access to the site below which John, Ezekiel and 36 other British and French tunnellers still lie.
Historian Peter Barton leads the La Boisselle Study Group. He says: "We are not looking for the men, we are looking for their stories. If we were looking for bodies there are thousands buried in the fields around here.
"What makes this place special is that the detailed records kept by both the Allied and the German tunnellers mean we know the names of those people buried here.
"We know exactly where they were trapped, we even know the names of the Germans who pushed the buttons on the explosives that killed them. We can tell their narrative."
La Boisselle, at the heart of the Somme, encapsulates all the horrors and hardships of the Western Front.
At one point the opposing front lines were just 50 yards apart and by the time British troops took over the French trenches in summer 1915, both sides had begun tunnelling, exploding massive charges beneath enemy trenches and trying to find and destroy rival tunnels.
The concentrated area of craters and shell holes became known by the troops as the Glory Hole.
Today, within sight of the massive Lochnagar crater, shrubs and poppies cover the pitted chalkscape and the smell of wild mint scents a breeze full of birdsong where once it was filled with gunfire.
Beneath a single sheet of corrugated iron beside the zigzag scar of an old British trench is the warren-like entrance to a labyrinth of tunnels yet to be excavated.
As yet, the only access is to the first 30 yards of tunnel, littered with loose rocks and the occasional remnant of wooden pit props and rusted ventilation pipes.
Hero of the underground ... Lt Latham:
But near the original pit-head, on a flat face of chalk which has lain undisturbed for almost a century, are the graffitied names of three soldiers drafted in to help carry away the rock and earth being chiselled out of the tunnels.
The men, from the 11th (Service) Battalion of the Border regiment (the Lonsdale Battalion), were the beasts of burden at La Boisselle in March 1916 as the tunnelling went on at a frantic pace in the run-up to the Battle of the Somme.
Not far from the scribbled names, on another rock surface, is a stoic poem which was penned by one of the underground soldiers.
"If in this place you are detained Don't look around you all in vane (sic) But cast your net and you will find That every cloud is silver lined Still."
Six years of painstaking research by historian Simon Jones has built up a detailed knowledge of the individual tunnellers.
Captain Thomas Richardson, 31-year-old commanding officer of the 185th Tunnelling Company, and 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Latham, 25, had led 16 sappers into the Inch Street workings 50ft below the Glory Hole on February 4, 1916 and were trying to locate the noise of enemy tunnelling with a new listening device - the geophone.
When the Germans detonated their own charge it filled the damaged British tunnel with methane and carbon monoxide. Though the sappers were experienced enough not to relight their blown-out candles, pipe layers further up the shaft were not and ignited the methane, killing all the miners in the secondary blast.
Killed ... Capt Richardson:
Today the French Lejeune family, which has owned land containing the Glory Hole since the 1920s, has given the go-ahead for the historians to research every aspect of the crater-strewn area.
Digging will not start until next year and any bodies in the tunnels will be left to rest in peace while the remainder of the area becomes a monument to their memory.
Chris Lane, the 45-year-old great-grandson of Sapper John Lane, had already begun piecing together the father-of-four's life story at his home in Redditch, Worcs, so the new information fascinates him.
He says: "My grandad had always thought his father died at Ypres so to find out the exact details of his death from the regimental war diaries is very moving."
The work of the miners at La Boisselle reached fruition on the morning of July 1, 1916 when, to start the Battle of the Somme, they detonated two devastating mines beneath the German trenches at Y-Sap and Lochnagar and two smaller mines in the heart of the Glory Hole.
This allowed infantrymen to swarm around the edges and attack the German lines. To avoid being heard by the German tunnellers as they dug the last few yards of the Lochnagar tunnel, the British sappers worked barefoot, walking on sandbags, prising lumps of chalk out with bayonets and catching them, rather than using pickaxes.
La Boisselle Study Group member Ian McHenry says: "The Battle of the Somme is ingrained in the British psyche because of the losses on the first day
Brave ... Sapper Lane:
Battlefield ... fields of the Somme today:
"It was the blackest day in the history of the British army, with 58,000 casualties, including 19,000 dead.
"Was the Somme a victory? I think it was, because it kept the French in the war and if they had surrendered then history might have been very different.
"It was a very bloody victory - and the tunnellers played their part."
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Re: Archaeologists Study the Battle of the Somme Battlefield
Amazing post, Kel!!