Beneath the Killing Fields...


...Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front, from Pen and Sword


Title: Beneath the Killing Fields

Author: Matthew Leonard

Publisher: Pen and Sword

ISBN: 978-1-78346-305-0

The author is a member of the Durand Group, a team of archaeologists and engineers who specialise in exploring the various underground tunnel systems that are still largely unexplored down the length of the Western Front. A number are well known, while there are still others yet to be rediscovered. Many of them not been entered since the end of WW1 and there are many dangers that face those who enter them. Perhaps the most frightening, there are many which still hold unexploded charges of explosive such as Amatol, some with many thousands of pounds of high explosive. If they were to explode today, some 100years or more after they were laid, the consequences hardly bear thinking about. As related in the book, a number have been found, had the detonators removed and the charge rendered inert thanks to the work of experts within the Durand Group.

The particular areas detailed in the book, including the history of what happened there during the war as well as the modern excavations, include the Hidden Battlefield of Loos; Vimy and the Labyrinth; and the Verdun Inferno. The book is well illustrated throughout, and as well as maps and archive photos, there are a fascinating collection of modern images showing the graffiti and the conditions in these tunnels now. Today the phrases 'Health & Safety' mean that most of what has been fine is unlikely to ever be accessible to the general public. The work of the Durand Group has done some excellent work, not only as archaeological research but with safety reassurance for the modern communities which live above them.

As well as the archaeological finds, the author gives great consideration to how it must have felt to be down in these tunnels at the time. It must have provided shelter for the men but the conditions inside, with narrow spaces, no toilets, and despite protection from the shells and machine gun fire on the surface, the potential horrors of being trapped in the tunnels, of the lack of light, potential for poison gas to seep down into the tunnel must have made it quite horrible for most of the men. The depths they dug to, and the possibility of the enemy digging their own tunnels and of blowing their own mine charges to wreck those of their opponents. The descriptions of the tunnel war on the Butte de Vauquois near Verdun is quite graphic. The horrors that were left on the surface to see would turn your stomach. What had been a single hill with a small village on top was left as two hilltops, both lower than the original, and split by the remains of over 500 mines that had been exploded underground. The only thing I found a bit distracting was some of the language used in the text, which I thought could have been simplified in places.

Having visited Vimy Ridge and the battlefield of Verdun, it is fascinating to read more about what went on underground. The dangers from unexploded ordnance still leaves 'no-go' areas along the Western Front will likely be there for the foreseeable future. The idea of German concrete bunkers where large groups of men were trapped and gassed and simply sealed up with bricks at the time would still leave potential horrors to find if they were discovered by modern archaeologists. My personal view is that God forbid if anyone should choose to open these particular graves. A fascinating read, and one which adds much to the history of WW1, so much more than simply trench warfare.

Thanks to Pen and Sword for this review copy.