In 2007, with the spring sun trying to burn through
an early morning Belgian mist, it was hard to imagine that this
innocuous looking potato field was once the hellish moonscape of
the front line.
By the end of the First World War, life on the
ground had become untenable. Tons of steel fell from the sky in
a near continuous bombardment. The Germans retreated into thick
concrete pillboxes. The British dug further and further
underground. Today we often picture the British Tommy taking a
drag from a cigarette leaning against the wall of his trench. In
reality, especially around the Belgian town of Ypres, tens of
thousands were living up to thirteen metres (forty feet) beneath
That's how far they had to dig to be safe from
the German shelling.
Memories of Passchendaele
After the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, when
a quarter of a million British and Commonwealth soldiers died as
troops advanced the few miles to Passchendaele Ridge, a brigade
headquarters was built here. Within a week of its completion in
1918, the Germans swept through during their spring offensive
and recaptured all the territory gained at such a cost a few
They moved into the tunnels and extended them.
As the war drew to a close they were finally abandoned as British
troops advanced again in the autumn of 1918. The tunnels were
eventually sealed and flooded and have remained buried and half
forgotten ever since.
Race against time
Peter Barton, historian, author, and expert in
underground warfare, was hoping to be able to get back into the
tunnels. He pointed out that in those dugouts which he had
explored before, everything was preserved, from the actual
structure of the thing itself to blankets, to the wire on the
bunks, to newspapers.