Today, with the spring sun trying to burn through an early
morning Belgian mist, it is hard to imagine that this innocuous
looking potato field was once the hellish moonscape of the front
By the end of World War I life on the surface 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 40ft [13m] beneath the ground.
That is how far they had to dig to be safe from the German
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
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 months earlier.
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. They were sealed and flooded and have remained buried and half
forgotten ever since.
Race against time
Peter Barton, historian, author and expert in underground
warfare, is hoping to be able to get back into the tunnels.
He said: "Those dugouts which we've explored before, everything
was preserved, from the actual structure of the thing itself to
blankets, to the wire on the bunks, to newspapers!"
But it is a race against time. Excavations in a nearby clay-pit
mean the water that is preserving everything inside the tunnel
system might be drained and the process of decay will begin.