Tunnel warfare in World War I

Illustration from Neil Demarco's The Great War

I just read a great article about another, less written about side of World War I: tunnel warfare.  Both the Germans and the Allied forces employed this tactic of digging lengthy tunnel networks that ended underneath the front-lines of the enemy.  Explosives would then be placed at the end of the tunnels and detonated.  However, the tunnels of the Allies and the Germans often came close to each other,  and smaller explosions were used to collapse the enemy tunnels.  Of paramount importance was to make as little noise as possible so the enemy could not detect you.  This was achieved by padding tools used for digging and not wearing shoes.

The work was hellish and could take an enormous amount of time.  The article highlights one successful tunnel network dug by the British, with a total of 21 tunnels dug under a German-held ridge in Messines.  They had taken a year and a half to dig, and when the 600 tons of explosives went off at 3:10 AM in June, 1917, the sound could be heard all the way to London, and 10,000 German soldiers died instantly.  A crater was carved out of the ridge, and the Allies made a rare advance during the stalemate on the Western Front.

Curiously, as the article points out, two mines did not go off during the detonation.  One finally exploded in 1955, killing a cow.  The other has yet to go off.

The article is in relation to the BBC’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong, which has already aired in the UK and will be airing on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic on April 22 & 29.

I recommend taking a look at the article to read about another side of World War I: The heroic sewer rats of the Somme

Also check out this great short BBC video about a tunnel at the Somme battlefield that is being excavated.  It includes an aerial view of a crater formed by one of the explosions, as well as techniques used by soldiers in World War I to detect enemy tunnels.

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Filed under Period Pieces, World War I

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