The battle fought below no man's land

Beneath Flanders Fields
November 11, 2005

Sapper William Hackett was a miner from Rotherham who joined 254 Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers in 1915, aged 42, and was stationed at Givenchy in French Flanders. On June 23, 1916, the tunnel he was digging was blown by the Germans, but Hackett refused to abandon a badly injured comrade. Enemy shelling curtailed rescue attempts, and later searches found no trace. In November of that year, his widow received his posthumous Victoria Cross, and later his name was engraved on the Memorial to the Missing at Ploegsteert near Armenti res. Hackett still lies somewhere beneath the old battlefield, in the tomb he unknowingly dug for himself; like so many of "the missing", he survives in memory and objects, illustrating the poignant nature of an archaeology that deals with landscapes that are simultaneously anonymous cemeteries and fields of memory.

The First World War lasted four years, but in many respects it shows no sign of ending. The industrialised carnage it wrought along the Western Front was on such a scale that its aftermath has endured for 90 years - and will continue for centuries to come.

Inevitably, the wreckage of the Great War has begun to attract archaeologists and anthropologists, but a modern scientific archaeology of the conflict (as well as of 20th-century war more widely) is still in the future. Yet, while only a handful of professionals are currently excavating in France and Belgium, for decades there have been overlapping worlds where battlefield scavengers, collectors, amateur diggers and developers have churned the landscapes of war, driven, variously, by sincere enthusiasm and curiosity, as well as by ignorance and greed.

Since the 1990s, local associations have appeared, drawn to digging - and sometimes publishing - the astonishing remains of the war, which lie temptingly just centimetres beneath the modern surface. These associations have been a halfway house, highlighting the need for, and stimulating the interest of, professional archaeologists with their modern techniques.

Beneath Flanders Fields emerges from this serious amateur tradition and illustrates what can be done with dedication, energy and a revelatory combination of fieldwork and archival research. None of the authors is a professional archaeologist or a military historian, yet their meticulous research and familiarity with the landscape (above and below) illustrate the wealth of expertise that professionals can draw on.

The authors present a comprehensive trawl of technical diagrams, field drawings, maps, rare contemporary black-and-white photographs and haunting colour images of dugouts and mine shafts that they have investigated first hand. They reveal the world of the tunnellers, who fought a daunting and dangerous war beneath no man's-land, struggling with nature and technology as well as the enemy.

The photographs tell their own deeply ambiguous story, and the biographical sketches of the tunnellers tell tales of skill, bravery, foolhardiness and heart-rending tragedy, which are ambiguous and often ironic.

This book has many different identities. It is a manual of tunnelling techniques and explosive devices, a survey of surviving fragments from the war that are still recycled today, and a chronicle of letters and cartoons concerning - and blueprints for fighting - a subterranean war. It is a social history of the tunnellers' experiences, and a photographic essay showing stunned and exhausted faces peering at the camera. Above all, perhaps, it hints at an eerie world of astonishing preservation that survives beneath the battlefields, unsuspected by the schoolchildren and tourists who journey there in increasing numbers.

The authors' investigations began 25 years ago, and much has changed since then. Consequently, this is a book caught on the cusp of change. It began when exhaustive documentary evidence was a goal in its own right, but it is published at a time of multidisciplinary research, problem-oriented strategies and subtle and reflexive scholarly investigations.

The nature and subject of the underground war is the stuff of modern archaeology and its anthropologically inflected interpretive frameworks: digging and shifting earth, finding bodies and objects, exploring relationships between technology and flesh, identity and emotion, and the conflict of men in subterranean worlds.

These are rich and intersecting issues that the authors open up, but few archaeological references anchor the text, and no theoretical discussion locates the work in the wider and more knowing intellectual climate into which it has been born. How does this ground-breaking work relate to the archaeologies of death, landscape and commemoration, to "historical"

archaeology, to the anthropology of material culture or to heritage and tourism? These are issues for the future.

The authors have produced the epitome of what dedicated, energetic and talented enthusiasts can achieve. This is a fascinating and brilliantly illustrated book, an invaluable guide for future generations of Great War archaeologists.

It is also a moving testimony to the toughness, inventiveness and sheer dogged determination of the tunnellers, who fought unseen and unheard below ground, and some of whom never returned to the light.

Nicholas J. Saunders is in the department of anthropology, University College London.

Beneath Flanders Fields: The Tunnellers' War 1914-18

Author - Peter Barton, Peter Doyle and Johan Vanderwalle
Publisher - Spellmount
Pages - 304
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 862 237 9

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