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Underground war and technical innovations

V.1 A mole’s life

Archaeological research has cast new light on what was a constant preoccupation for the soldiers in the trenches: their efforts to shelter themselves from the devastating effects of artillery fire which became progressively heavier and more powerful. The first makeshift shelters, constructed from tree trunks, were soon replaced by structures which were buried deeper underground and often very carefully constructed. The soldiers thus had to double up as landscapers and miners, bringing enormous quantities of beams, woodwork, concrete and sheet metal up to the front. Death and desolation soon caught up to this network of underground shelters, with engineering units on both sides devoting their attentions to mine warfare, even more terrifying than the combat above ground.

Picture - Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture - Photo allemande. Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture - Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture - Photo allemande. Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture - Photo allemande. Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
V.1.1 Underground sleeping quarters at Arras

The quarries at Arras turned out to be a major asset during preparations for the Battle of Arras, scheduled for 9 th April 1917. Tunnelling work undertaken by specialist engineers from New Zealand allowed the British troops to pop up just metres in front of the German lines. The war diary kept by this unit serves as an invaluable tool for understanding the work done in these quarries, which were used to house kitchens and medical units. The water supply was provided by pipes or wells. Latrines for officers and men were installed in each room. Although they did not fully satisfy the sanitary regulations in force in the British Army concerning the installation of temporary camps, the quarries at Arras did offer a high level of safety in spite of their proximity to the front line, and sheltered the men in relative comfort before they made their way up to the lines.

 

These were the most substantial underground constructions completed by the British Army in this domain. On 3 rd April 1917 the first battalion to use these facilities moved from the Grand’Place d’Arras to the quarries of the Saint-Sauveur district. A series of British combat units would pass through these shelters. The thousands of drawings and written graffiti they left behind give us an insight into the atmosphere in the ranks on the eve of a major battle, as well as providing information on the organisation of these colossal underground facilities capable of holding over 24,000 men, equivalent to the entire population of Arras before the outbreak of war.

Picture - Service archéologique d'Arras
Picture - Service archéologique d'Arras
Picture - Service archéologique d'Arras
Picture - Service archéologique d'Arras
Picture - Service archéologique d'Arras
Picture - Service archéologique d'Arras
V.1.2 Mine warfare

In the majority of cases, security issues prevent archaeologists from venturing very far in their explorations of these underground networks. But, on a few rare occasions, it is still possible to access this forgotten underground world. These tunnels hold plenty of surprises, casting new light on the subterranean combat which proved to be a major, albeit oft-neglected, aspect of the Great War.

 

The British volunteers of the ‘Durand Group’ have explored the subterranean networks which run beneath the immense mine craters at Vimy (Pas-de-Calais). On this site, for three years from 1915 to 1917, French and then British sappers would do battle with the German advance lines by digging an incredibly vast network of mine tunnels beneath enemy lines. The plan was to install demolition chambers packed with explosives, reducing the enemy trenches to rubble. In April 1917 the rapid progress of the Canadian forces at the Battle of Arras made this sector the new Allied support line, leading to the immediate abandonment of all sapping work and the shutting off of the tunnels. This sudden withdrawal left the tunnels intact, complete with ventilation shafts, electrical cables, camouflets designed to halt the enemy’s progress, graffiti left by the miners and even the demolition chambers still packed with their explosive charges.

Picture - Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture - Photo allemande. Fonds documentaire Alain Jacques
Picture Aerial view of the mine crater "Lochnagar" at... - Cl. Roger Agache. Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
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Underground war and technical innovations

V.2 New weapons

When fighting began to get bogged down in the trenches, the Great War saw the re-emergence of old forms of combat inherited from the tradition of siege warfare as practiced in Vauban’s day (17 th -18 th centuries). But this new state of affairs also proved to be a tremendous catalyst to innovation, with examples including the evolution of civil and military aviation, submarines doing battle at sea and the exponential development of heavy artillery. Some of the more fanciful and unworkable innovations, such as the Dragon of the Somme , would not get beyond the experimental stage. Others, particularly those innovations which held the promise of breaking the stalemate of trench warfare and getting back to open warfare – tanks being the prominent example – would develop at an extraordinary pace.

Picture - Cl. Éric Marchal. Association la Main de Massiges
Picture - Cl. Éric Marchal. Association la Main de Massiges
V.2.1 The Dragon of the Somme

In May 2010 a team of historians and archaeologists from the University of Glasgow (Peter Barton, Dr. Iain Banks and Dr. Tony Pollard) explored the British trenches near the village of Mametz (Somme) in search of a rare and terrifying weapon: the Livens flame projector. Twenty metres in length and weighing 2.5 tonnes, it took a team of seven men to operate this fearsome contraption, capable of projecting a jet of flaming petrol into and above the German trenches at a range of 100 metres. It took 200 soldiers to transport the thousands of individual parts which made up this beast. The Dragon was installed in a specially-designed tunnel beneath the front line. A maximum of three salvoes of ten seconds each were enough to open up a breach in the German lines and allow the British troops to break through.

 

Military records indicate that on 28th June 1916 a Livens flame projector was being transported underground in this area when a large calibre shell destroyed the entrance to the subterranean passageway. The research team hoped to identify the precise location of this incident and excavate the area. An experimental archaeological project was developed in partnership with the Royal Engineers, aiming to construct a replica of the weapon. A scale model of the dragon had already created by the apprentices of the Somme & Aisne centre for industrial training and apprenticeships (CFAI), the BTP-CFA and Lycée Jean Racine, as part of a partnership project with the Museum of the Great War. An exhibition" Breathing Fire" .

Picture - Andy Gammon
Picture -
Picture -
V.2.2 The Flesquières tank

Philippe Gorczynski, a passionate collector of Great War artefacts, was fascinated by the development of battle tanks, first used in great numbers at the Battle of Cambrai (20 th November – 7 th December 1917). Painstaking documentary research allowed him to pinpoint the location of a tank 6 miles south-west of Cambrai, near the village of Flesquières (Nord). Local tradition held that a tank had been pushed into a huge pit, initially intended to house one of the bunkers of the Hindenburg Line. Using aerial photographs, Philippe Gorczynski managed to determine the precise location of the pit in question. But what state would the tank be in?

 

In November 1998, the regional archaeology service and the archaeology department of the City of Arras provided technical assistance with the exploratory survey, and then the unearthing of the tank. This armoured vehicle, a ‘Mark IV female’ was almost entirely intact, with the exception of the front right section and some of the mechanical parts. Archive research allowed the team to identify this tanks as D. 51 ‘Deborah’ of the British Tank Corps. The presence of sheet metal covering the openings would suggest that the tank was subsequently used an underground shelter. The extraction process took four days, from 17 th to 20 th November 1998. This operation was funded entirely by Philippe Gorczynski, and the tank is now on display in Flesquières. It was officially listed as a Historic Monument on 14 th September 1999.

Slideshow - Cl. Jean-Marie Patin. Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
Picture - Yves Desfossés. Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
Picture - Fonds documentaire Philippe Gorczynski et Tank Museum de Bovington
Picture - Fonds documentaire Philippe Gorczynski et Tank Museum de Bovington
V.2.3 The airfield at Châtelet-sur-Retourne

Preventive archaeological surveys conducted on the outskirts of the village of Châtelet-sur-Retourne, on the southern edge of the Ardennes département in the Retourne Valley, half-way between Reims and Rethel, unearthed a large quantity of ruins: bunkers, munitions depots and a series of trenches indicating the former presence of buildings. These ruins and the objects found in and around them confirmed that this was the site of a WWI German air base.

 

Châtelet-sur-Retourne is known to have been the site of a major German military base during the Great War. An extract from the artillery map of Warmeriville dated 28th August 1918 confirms the presence of a substantial German military contingent in the area. This document indicates that Châtelet-sur-Retourne possessed a military hospital, various unidentified buildings and an airfield. It should also be noted that in 2001 archaeologists came across a large cache of munitions (almost 8000 shells) which required the evacuation of the village. The geographical position of the village, at a major railway intersection not far from the front, made it a key strategic point in the rear lines.

Slideshow - Inrap
Picture - Fonds documentaire J.-P. Létang
Picture - Ministère de la Défense
Picture - Inrap
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Underground war and technical innovations

V.3 The Great War at sea

During the Great War almost 10,000 military, merchant and fishing vessels were sunk. Long neglected by maritime specialists, historians and archaeologists, this subaquatic heritage is a rich source of information which has nonetheless suffered substantial damage over the past century as a result of levelling operations, industrial development and unauthorised scrap recovery. In the 1980s, the archaeologists from the Department for sub-aquatic and submarine archaeological research (DRASSM) began the task of compiling an inventory of these underwater relics, organising a system of protection and beginning to study some of the wrecks.

V.3.1 A forgotten naval war, a neglected historical heritage

While the subaquatic heritage of the Great War remains broadly underappreciated, the data gathered over the past 30 years by the DRASSM has done much to raise the profile of these forgotten artefacts. Two factors have combined to make this possible. Firstly, the DRASSM has been lucky enough to receive support and information from a great number of recreational divers who for many years have taken a keen interest in locating and identifying Great War wrecks. Subsequently, this project of documentation has been the catalyst for a gradual realisation of the historical and symbolic significance of this sunken heritage, to the extent that the diving community has started working to protect the wrecks, leading to a significant decrease in pillaging.

The enormous number of vessels lost at sea during the First World War (almost ten thousand) is a direct result of the use of underwater weaponry, which increased steadily throughout the conflict: primarily submarines and mines. Almost 7000 boats were sunk by submarines during the Great War, of which 2000 went down in French waters. The submarines themselves were not spared from the carnage, with the majority of their number also lost during the war.

In spite of the protective measures put in place, and reinforced year after year, this heritage remains in a fragile position on account of the multiple threats it faces: marine corrosion, damage from commercial fishing and work undertaken to improve the coastline.

V.3.2 The Danton, 1917. A symbolic wreck from the Great War

A French warship constructed in Brest between 1906 and 1911, the Danton was torpedoed by German submarine U-64 in March 1917, off the south coast of Sardinia. Its wreck was located on 18 th January 2008 at a depth of over 1000 metres, during an electronic survey conducted on behalf of the Galsi project to lay a gas pipeline between Algeria and Italy. Follow-up inspections by divers revealed the wreck to be in a remarkable state of preservation, so much so that identifying the vessel proved to be easy.

The Danton was the first, eponymous vessel in a series of six semi-Dreadnoughts . Made of reinforced iron and steel, it was also the first French battleship to be fitted with a turbine engine. Based in the Mediterranean, the Danton, escorted by torpedo boat Massue, set sail from Toulon on 18 th March 1917 headed for Corfu. Warned by the intelligence services of an enemy naval presence along the route, the commander of the Danton, Captain Delage, took the necessary precautions. But these precautions were not enough to avoid the two torpedoes which struck the Danton at 13:17 the next day, fired by German submarine U-64. Hit once in the bow between the galley and the command turret of the 10-inch gun, and again by the boiler house, the Danton went down in under 30 minutes. A third of the crew were lost along with the wreck, as were a good deal of the officers who, following the example set by Captain Delage, refused to abandon ship and remained on the bridge. A total of 296 men went down with the Danton.

Picture - D.R.
Picture - Gallica.bnf.fr / Bilbilothèque nationale de France
V.3.3 Submarine U-95, 1918

In the 1960s, a first attempt at locating the wreckage of U-Boot U-95 was unsuccessful. The search began again in 1985, led by Alain Richard. Working with a team of divers, he located what he believed to be the wreckage of the U-95 9 miles off the coast of Hardelot, in the Pas-de-Calais region of the ‘Opal Coast’. Sunk in 1918, the wreck is resting on its keel 40m below the surface. Despite some damage caused by the intense fishing of this area, the U-Boot seems to have been preserved in excellent condition. The hatches are still closed.

A series of explorations conducted between 1990 and 1997 allowed the team to identify the key features of the submarine: four torpedo tubes, a 4-inch gun, a conical tower with two periscopes and a 3.5-inch gun. Comparison of this data with the information recorded in the archives provided definitive confirmation that this was the wreck of the U-95.

Captained by Athalwin Prinz, the U-95 was launched from Kiel on 20 th January 1917. It was 72 metres in length and powered by a 2400 horsepower diesel engine which allowed it to achieve speeds of 16.8 knots at the surface and 8.6 knots when submerged. The submarine was lost in January 1918, probably between on the 19 th or 20 th , while returning from its fifth mission. It is believed to have fallen victim to a mine or to a malfunction in one of its own torpedoes. The bodies of all 43 members of the crew are still trapped within the wreckage.

Slideshow

Pictures of the -

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1. Torpedo loading hatch - 2. Gun UK 8.8/30 ... -

Picture - © Nicolas Job / Agence des aires marines protégées
Picture - © Nicolas Job / Agence des aires marines protégées
Picture - © Nicolas Job / Agence des aires marines protégées
Picture - © Nicolas Job / Agence des aires marines protégées