Tonight BBBC4 will be broadcasting Peter Barton’s The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars which looks at the work the La Boisselle Group have been doing at the Glory Hole site over the past few years. This project has explored the whole network of tunnels beneath the allied lines close to the village of La Boisselle and near one of the largest British mine craters, the Lochnagar Crater.
The Somme battlefields were and are chalk downland. From as early as 1914 both sides went underground and constructed dugouts and later vast tunnel positions, often deep in the Picardy chalk. I first went underground on the Somme back in the 1980s when German tunnels in Beaumont-Hamel were suddenly opened up. When I lived on the Somme I was able to explore many other tunnel systems including a system of German dugouts at Guillemont. None of these were ever open to the public but the La Boisselle not only explored the Glory Hole tunnels on a grand scale but were able to make them accessible to the public and hundreds of visitors were able to get a glimpse into this fascinating aspect of the Great War.
One system of tunnels that is open to the public on a regular basis, normally the first weekend in September each year, are the tunnels beneath the village of Bouzincourt. These tunnels cut into the chalk had been used to hide both villages and their cattle and then during WW1 they became a billet for troops. Spending long periods of time resting in the tunnels, British and Commonwealth soldiers covered the walls with memorials to their lost comrades and their own names and those of their units. Many of these fragile inscriptions are written in field pencil, while others are cut into the chalk. They are in amazing condition for hundred year old graffiti and while filming in them last February with Dan Snow, I happened to put details of one inscription online and within an hour we had a photograph of him! (see below)
One regiment particularly well represented at Bouzincourt is the 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment, the 1st Football battalion. Quite a few names of men from this unit cover the walls with the one below being particularly noticeable. The unit was there in the autumn of 1916 and one of those serving with it was Black footballer Walter Tull.
Tonight’s look at the underground war on the Somme promises to be fascinating and engaging and Barton’s work will once again highlight this unique aspect of the Great War.