A visit to La Boisselle
Earlier this week I was lucky enough to travel to France and spend a couple of days with the team of the La Boisselle Study Group. If you don’t know of the group, please check out their website here. They are currently excavating and studying a small but hugely significant portion of the old Somme front line called the ‘Glory Hole’ situated in the village of La Boisselle just a few hundred yards from the Lochnagar mine crater.
The ‘Glory Hole’ was the scene of intense fighting, not just in the summer of 1916 but right from the beginning of the war in 1914 where the area was defended by French troops. It is also a place where the opposing front lines were very close together and as a result there was intense mining activity from both sides as they dug under the front line . The proximity of this part of the front line – in the hear of the Somme battlefield, as well as the intense activity both on the ground and metres underneath make this small parcel of land hugely significant from a historical and archaeological point of view.
The Study Group is fronted by two well respected First World War historians; Jeremy Banning and Peter Barton, but they are ably backed up by a group of chaps that know the area and the history of this particular part of the front inside out.
I got out there on Sunday and had some time to kill so I drove around a few places on the Somme; The might Thievpal Memorial, Pozieres Memorial and the Lochnagar Crater. Always on the look out for some battlefield relics I stumbled across some fully intact and seemingly still very dangerous hand grenades. I placed them gently on a concrete ledge, took a photo and walked away quickly!
I spent two days on site with them, they have uncovered british trench lines and a number of mine shafts and tunnels that are 80ft below the front line. During the afternoon of the first day I donned hard hat and harness and went on an extraordinary journey 80ft below the british trenches. The tunnels below the Glory hole are in remarkable condition, they geology in this area is predominantly chalk and as such it is very dry still in the tunnels. The group have excavated a couple of hundred metres of tunnel at 80ft depth and have found further shafts that go deeper to a tunnel system at 100ft. The British engineers and tunnellers went deeper in an effort to mine underneath the German tunnels. Mine explosions tend to travel up and so being above the enemy mine would mean danger.
As I dropped slowly down the mine shaft I could clearly see the ladder marks in the chalk made by the miners as the slowly and arduously excavated the mine shaft down to 80ft below. The tunnels are in remarkable condition and there are still many items, including tin hats, mess-tins and general supply items that were used by the men who worked underground in those tunnels almost 100 years ago. Dark soot patches are still evident on the walls – markers for where the candles were located to give the men light. Some of the chambers and fighting tunnels have collapsed, but where possible the team have researched if any soldiers were lost in the blasts, in the sad cases where this is true they have located family to make them part of the story. Indeed the day before I got there, there was a live BBC radio interview conducted in the tunnels as family members of one of the miners were taken down to their ancestors’ last resting place.
That night we visited Trones Wood, the scene of bitter fighting in 1916 – where we also found some monumental shells – they were the biggest I have ever seen, unfortunately the light was so poor my little camera struggled to get decent pictures. After the trip to the wood we were given a brilliant lecture by Peter Barton whilst sampling some of his home brewed stout.
The second day was a day of touring the surrounding battlefields with Jeremy and the team. I have visited the area on a number occassions however, their insight and knowledge of the area was unbelievable, they also had the ability to weave in personal stories into their narrative which really brought home the fact that these monster offensives and large scale battles were fought by normal chaps with their own hopes, thoughts and fears.
One of the guys in our group didn’t drive to the site like I did, he didn’t get the train or fly into Paris… No. He flew his own helicopter direct to the dig site. I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to have short flight in the helicopter to get a birds eye view of the surrounding area. It afforded me some breathtaking views of the front line, the cemeteries and memorials that litter this part of france and other permanent reminders of the war such as mine craters, the preserved trenches at Beaumont-Hamel and the various scars and scrapes in the ground that signify a more violent past.
It was a truly memorable couple of days. The La Boisselle Study Group are doing a remarkable job in discovering and understanding one of the most violent and sad parts of European history. They guys on the team are not paid, they do it for the love of it, they rely on sponsors and corporate donations as well as the generosity of individuals.
To find out more about the Study Group and to see how you can help them continue their terrific work, check out their website at www.laboisselleproject.com
I will add more photos from the trip to my Pinterest page over the coming days…