Disappearance and Discoveries

As affluence in a country brings with it the need for expansion, so it increases the need for more building. Consequently more land is required to cover with concrete to support the new roads, housing estates, industrial complexes, leisure centres, supermarkets, car parks and the like. This is a world-wide phenomenon, but for those countries through which the old Western Front of the Great War winds its way, it holds a particular significance. In many cases the concrete is laid over old battlefields that saw much slaughter, housing trench and dugout systems and, more poignantly, thousands of the fallen of both sides who have no known graves.

Whereas many of the battlefields were covered by progressive developments after the Armistice, those left as farmland saw disturbance only to the depth of top-soil. After the filling-in of the trenches and, where possible, the dugouts, crop cultivation and natural growth then helped bring back the countryside to the agricultural community.

As more and more of this agricultural land is taken-up for development, a development that today is literally devouring agricultural areas, so more and more battlefields disappear - and more and more "discoveries" are made.

Both "disappearances" and "discovery" are linked by the same factor, the industrial excavator, a piece of equipment that would have saved thousands of hours of back-breaking hard-labour for the men who built the very trench systems that this sophisticated equipment is now uncovering.

The entrance to the Command Post in the "Wall Gate" communication trench system.

Photo - Ted Smith

One such discovery, made in February 1992 when the land was being cleared for such development in the massive industrial park north of Ypres, was a Signals Command Centre in a section of a communication trench east of the Yser Canal at Boesinghe. The time is fast approaching for this section of land to take its place as part of the industrial estate which is gradually enveloping this sector of the old Western Front. The base drainage system and water-courses have been laid around the dugout and soon all traces of this unique discovery will be gone forever.

Credit for the opening-out of the dugout and communication trench back in 1992, goes to a small group of enthusiastic Belgians calling themselves the Diggers. This voluntary group of five, spearheaded by Johan Vandewalle, working under a special license from the Flemish Regional Authorities, keep ahead of the concrete pourers, attempting to locate, uncover and record such reminders of the Great War. The grant allocated by the authorities to fund their work would be grossly exaggerated if described as 'peanuts', and  they have been told to augment this already long-spent sum by selling anything they find. A sad and sorry set of conditions under which to work. Nevertheless they are busy again, attempting to uncover more of the trench as the building teams move ever closer.

The trench in fact is not a trench as generally thought of, but a superb example of the base of a part-trench, part-breastwork showing how the sappers of the time overcame the problems of drainage inherent in any sort of digging project in Flanders, and particularly alongside a canal.

The depth of the trench from the ground surface to its duckboard planking is about three-feet, with another two-feet of space below the planking. This latter area forms a drainage ditch, running just about another foot above the water-level, a level clearly apparent in the down-sloping entrance to the dugout itself. The inverted "A" frames and the duckboards are in remarkable condition considering the time they have spent surrounded by damp earth below the surface.

Detail of the inverted "A" frames exposed by the removal of the duckboard
planking, just where the entrance to the command post joins the communcation trench.

Photo - Ted Smith

From its position, it would appear to be a part of the Well Gate communication trench leading into the Barnsley Road trench, then edging the road on the right of the canal running northwards past Boesinghe to Steenstraat, named Hudderston Road on maps of the time. This trench area, supporting the E 30 and E 31 trenches, the extreme left of the E system of British front line trenches, was just south of International Trench (due south of Pilckem), infamous because of its proximity to the German front line only 50 yards away.

The 49th (West Riding) Division were in the line here in July 1915 and a shoulder badge of the 1/5th West Riding Regiment (Duke of Wellington's Own) found in the trench is a just reminder of this.

The trenchlines in this area were built after the line had been consolidated following the gas attack in April 1915. What is doubly interesting about the find is the evidence of trenches just behind the one spoken of above. A clearly identifiable trench pattern is visible, traverses and all, by rust-coloured lines on the land surface. A little scraping of the earth proves the lines to be stains of rusted metal just below the surface, no doubt metal, possibly corrugated- or elephant-iron, which would have been used as trench-side cladding at the time.

A traverse in the trench just before it
passes the command post, which can
be identified by the pile of earth and steel fence section in the centre of the photograph.

Photo - Ted Smith

These would have been the original trenches networking the area as "A" frames were not used in the Ypres Sector until late 1916, early '17. No drainage or sophisticated revetting systems were instituted when the line formed here, no doubt the "powers that be" at the time anticipated some sort of advance to regain the old line before the winter months set in. The condition of these original trenches were notorious. Prone to collapse by bad weather as well as shell fire, only the most primitive methods of revetting were employed using whatever materials came to hand.

They were referred to in letters home from soldiers of the 1/6th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, (also part of the 49th (West Riding) Division) in the winter of 1915 as :

"Of late we live in a marsh handed over as a trench area... we ran up against a simple bit of arithmetic - if 2 inches of rain per diem brings down one quarter of a company's parapet, and one company working about twenty-six hours per diem can revet one-eighth of a company's parapet, how long will your trenches last, given the additional premisses that no revetments to speak of are to be had, and that 2 inches of rain is only a minimum ration? We have indentured for a fleet : and even a few auxiliary destroyers and some packets of torpedoes would be better than nothing, which is what we've had so far.", and :

"You may think I am in the trenches. Disabuse yourself of this idea at once! We are inhabiting canals which are of four categories :
1) Full of water

2) Full of mud

3) Full of earth

4) Drains

Those ones full of water are easiest to move in, but rather disappointing as places of habitation. We sit on the Firing Step all night, and wheeze and spit and smoke. Cigarettes save the situation. Fires are impossible : sleep impossible. To keep warm is only possible occasionally - to keep dry is a farce."

The position where "Wall Gate" enters the "Barnsley Road" support trench.
Photo - Ted Smith

On a visit there in late July of this year with Tony Spagnoly and Lawry Farrow, I was privileged to walk the duckboards in the communication trench and was able to take photographs (using my wife's compact camera which she had mislaid about a week before, and which I had found under the passenger seat of my car on the day of the visit. She wasn't with me on the trip and therefore missed the blessing I would have given her, having forgotten to bring my own camera). The mass of telephone wiring leading into the dugout is still in place, as are spare wiring drums. Spent bullets abound and a replaced section of planking edged by scorched sections of the trench walls indicate, possibly, a direct hit from an enemy shell. A fair amount of rusted iron and rifle "skeletons" devoid of woodwork are scattered about, and a piece of the inevitable rum-jar holds pride of place in the trench wall. Unfortunately the dugout itself was waterfilled at the time of our visit - it needs continuous pumping to keep it clear, and the funds are not available for such an operation - but word has it that it will be emptied again in the very near future, a last-chance-to-visit before excavators and concrete pourers "disfigure" it into part of the footings of a trading estate.

On leaving the area, (on a reasonably dry afternoon) our boots and shoes (and much of my trousers) were heavy with clogging mud by the time we reached the road, not from the duckboards or the trench, but from the surrounding area of cleared land. Had it been raining I doubt if we would have made it across the field to view the trench and dugout in the first place, and we weren't burdened with the accoutrements of war either. Although complaining at the time, the content of the letter extracts above brought to me a touch of shame - I'll certainly think twice before complaining again about the Flanders mud.

Sadly, time is fast running-out for the interested visitor, as the construction companies working the area are quickly closing-in on the site. What was once an active and important signal centre with its supporting communication trench will soon be surrounded by pipes and concrete, resting beneath the industrial complex that will part-carry the name Computer Valley. A future generation of employees working there in the business of information and modern communication technology will possibly never know that, below them, rests a communication network that relayed information of a nature and subject totally alien to anything they, or those to follow, will ever have to experience or understand - and using the crudest of communications technology.

Peter Barton of Parapet Productions filmed the site at the time it was found and had been pumped clear of water. His production, entitled Underground War, includes this footage and will be broadcast on 11th November of this year by Channel 4 as part of the coverage of the 80th Anniversary of the Armistice ceremonies.

As much as we were excited about our visit, information on other "discoveries" in the area tempered the enthusiasm. In all, the remains of eighteen bodies have been found near the site with, we were informed, many more to come (another three have been found as I write). As more buildings take their place on the old battlefields surrounding Ypres then the discovery of the remains of the fallen in their unmarked graves will multiply, particularly in the areas edging the line following the 1915 gas attack. Here, the fighting was extremely brutal, and very costly to both sides as regards casualties.

Unfortunately, it is becoming such a nuisance in terms of paperwork, time-wasting and general bureaucracy for farmers, construction companies and the general public to report such finds that many don't bother any more and just ignore their presence (having first pilfered the remains for cap-badges, collar-dogs and the like). Computer Valley will no doubt represent the only "marker" for many of those soldiers of the Great War with no known graves.

Only seven of the said eighteen were "officially" reported and collected for re-burial, and these were visited by the scavengers between the time the remains were found and the time they were collected. Of the seven, two were German, four were French and one was British.

We were given the opportunity to view the remains of these seven at the Gendarmerie in Ypres, but the remains of the two German bodies had been collected and taken to Langemarck before we arrived.

All four French soldiers appeared to be Zouaves, as determined by the identity disc found on one of them, a Francois Metzinger, an Alsace Frenchman serving with the 3rd Zouaves Regiment. This regiment had been involved in a raid-in-strength on Morteltje Estaminet to the south-east of the dugout on 28th April 1915 and these four were possible casualties of that raid. They were found buried in a shellhole about twenty-yards west of the dugout.

About 100-yards away, in another shellhole, the remains of the British soldier was found. Whereas the Frenchmens' remains were fairly complete, skull, pelvis, rib-bones, arms, legs and feet etc., the British soldier's remains, identifiable as British by his webbing fittings, khaki cloth (sleeve, cuff and collar, plus part of a sock) and one boot, was without skull or pelvis and what small amount of bones there were I am not qualified to identify. I would hazard a guess that he was blown to bits and, what was found of him at the time, buried in a shellhole.

By now decisions will have been made as to where and when the re-burials of these five soldiers will take place and Tony Spagnoly, Lawry Farrow and myself will attend the ceremonies.

Should any reader be interested in related information, please do not hesitate to
contact Ted Smith via this email link.

Copyright © Ted Smith, August, 1998.

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