Soldiers steer a tank over a trench

WW1: First World War archaeology - finding engineering relics

From "archaeologists in the trenches" to modern-day enthusiasts of the rich engineering heritage, First World War archaeology keeps uncovering more and more hidden secrets.

It is hard to believe that 100 years separate us from history's bloodiest military conflict – the First World War. So fresh are the wounds, so relevant the implications, that it feels at times we can still discern a muffled cannonade of the First World War artillery.

This feeling of the proximity of the conflict is particularly strong in Flanders and Northern France, the sites of its fiercest battles and the final resting place of millions of confused young men.

Do we know all their names? Do we know under what circumstances they all died?

A total of 640,000 Commonwealth soldiers perished at the Western Front, and 520,000 graves have been identified and lovingly maintained by the Commonwealth Graves Commission. Yet, 100 years after the war, there are still 120,000 soldiers (about 20 per cent of the overall number) who do not have known burial sites.

However, this gruesome number keeps going down year after year thanks to the tireless efforts of the First World War archaeologists. Using the latest modern technology – from X-ray guns that can identify an object's chemical makeup to ground-penetrating radars and electronic scanners – these people, both professional engineers and scientists and volunteers, keep digging up not just the dead soldiers' remains, but also weapons, ammunition, details of uniforms, as well as what's left of First World War engineering structures: tunnels, trenches, field telephone cables, barbed wire, railway lines, dugouts, underground hospitals and so on. Such excavations help us reconstruct the truth about the First World War to make sure a slaughter of these proportions never happens again.

Among the recent findings are the narrow-gauge rail line for transporting ammunition near Arras (region Pas-de-Calais, France) and the remains of the 2,000V permanently electrified fence along the Belgian-Dutch border. That high fence, known as 'the wire of death', was erected by the Germans in the summer of 1915 to stop deserters and to keep out spies. With watch towers every 100m and a special patrol path, it used to stretch – in an almost straight line – for 180km from the North Sea to the Meuse River.

Archaeologists in the trenches

First World War archaeology was born in 1915, when the battles were still raging, by the so-called "archaeologists in the trenches", meaning the conscripted scientists, teachers, museum curators and engineers, among others, who found themselves at the Front. One of the pioneers was Joseph Dechelette, professional archaeologist and curator of the Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology in Roanne, who, although being over 48 years of age (he was 52) and therefore exempt from mobilisation, volunteered to be sent to the battlefield and was killed in October 1914.

A passionate collector of old guide books, I happen to be the lucky owner of a rare First World War archaeology memento – a 'Michelin Guide to Ypres', published in 1919 – one in the series of 'Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battle-Fields (1914-1918)'. The Guide carries dozens of battlefield maps and photographs of the ruins of Ypres, a "thriving" town, and "former capital of West Flanders" (according to a Baedeker Handbook of 1904), which already in the 14th Century had a population of "200,000 souls".

Well, there is not a living soul in sight on any of my 1919 'Michelin Guide' photos of the town that from then on was to be forever associated with chlorine gas, used for the first time in history by the Germans on 22 April 1915 in Poelkapelle, a suburb of Ypres. It was a zone controlled by the French and Canadians, but, allegedly, the Germans themselves were taken aback by the perilous effects of their new weapon – a fact that didn't stop them from using a much more poisonous substance, mustard gas, again in Ypres, in 1917. No wonder the British soldiers nicknamed Ypres "Wipers" – and not just due to the distorted transliteration of this word.

On page 46 of my 1919 'Michelin Guide to Ypres' is a blood-chilling photo of a British tank abandoned after the gas attack "at the entrance to Poelkapelle". It reminded me of 'Deborah' – another First World War British tank, dug out and preserved by amateur First World War archaeologist Philippe Gorczynski, whom I met in the French village of Flesqui'res, the site of one of the First World War's fiercest tank battles.

The very publication of the series of Michelin Guides, dedicated to the First World War battlefields, in 1919 shows that shortly after the war ended there were already numerous enthusiasts prepared to tour the sites not just to gape at the ruins, but to preserve the memory of the conflict: its victims, weapons and technologies – for themselves and for the posterity – and, hopefully, to also lay flowers on the still fresh soldiers' graves.

I will describe a couple of encounters with what I came to call "First World War engineering archeology" during my recent visit to Northern France. 

Wellington Quarry

It is not common knowledge that the ancient chalk quarries, some of which dated back to medieval times and the Roman era, in the outskirts of the French Town of Arras (Pas-de-Calais region) played a decisive role in the Battle of Arras, one of the war's major battles. It provided shelter for 24,000 Commonwealth soldiers (including 500 New Zealanders, who christened their hide "Wellington Quarry"). They all emerged into the daylight – and straight into combat – suddenly on the morning of 9 April 1917. The troops stayed underground for over a week which meant that certain infrastructure (hospitals, canteens, kitchens, latrines etc) had to be created.

These carefully preserved tunnels, now part of the €4m underground museum, were uncovered in 1990 largely due to the efforts of Alain Jacques, then head of the town's archeology department. "It was so exciting to find history undisturbed," he says. "The first time we opened the tunnel we found an operating theatre, boots, helmets, dog tags and even bullets that had been removed from wounded soldiers."

Converting the former chalk quarries into an underground shelter for thousands of soldiers took a considerable engineering effort on the part of the British Royal Engineers units whose men laid down railway lines for small trucks (one can see these on a tour of the museum) and prepared multiple exits for the day of the battle. Electricity was brought to the whole 12-mile network of the tunnels in just six weeks.

According to the memoirs of A. Stuart Dolden, one of the British engineers involved, "we went down to a considerable depth via a well, sunk into the chalk, and arrived at the bottom, where we walked for a long time into the bowls of the Earth. There was room to house at least 4,000 men, running water and, as a touch of sophistication, electricity providing a dim light. The caves were so high in some places that they were like cathedrals...". This was the biggest ever underground project carried out by British military engineers.

While doing their research in the quarries, the First World War archaeologists noticed numerous carvings, engravings and inscriptions left on the walls by the Commonwealth soldiers. They found several hundred items of graffiti too. Most of the latter were purely artistic (portraits of women, landscapes etc), but there were also Maori traditional symbols, masks and inscriptions, such as this one: "S. Isaac 4/6/1033 NZ Maori", which helped to identify some of the soldiers many decades later.

In love with a tank

"My wife doesn't let me see Deborah more than six times a day!" Philippe Gorcynski tells me without a shadow of irony in his voice. His 26-ton metallic sweetheart, 'Deborah', an excavated and semi-restored British-made D-51 tank, remains silent in her enclosure – a vast converted barn in the village of Flesquières, 11km from Cambrai.

A loving twinkle in Gorcynski's eyes each time he mentions Deborah, or any other First World War tank, betrays true enthusiasm bordering on obsession. With the fresh wind from the nearby field (could it be the same battlefield where the crucial Battle of Cambrai took place in November and December of 1917?) gently stirring his grey-ish mane of hair, he recounts the story of his passion for First World War archaeology in general and vintage tanks in particular – something that he was clearly prepared to do much more often than just six times a day.

A hotelier and a local historian of Polish extraction, Gorcynski had spent years looking for First World War tanks in the fields around the village. His hopes to find them were inspired by sketchy reveries of an elderly local resident who maintained that as a child he was part of the crowd of villagers mobilised by the occupying Germans to push a very large British tank into a pit to hide it from view.

By 1998, Gorcynski had been able to dig up a number of separate parts and pieces of metal (those which hadn't been picked up and recycled by other villagers), but not a whole tank.

Finally, with the help of several 1918 German aerial photographs (another First World War technological innovation), freshly discovered in the local archive, Gorcynski was able to spot that very pit with the rusty bulk of a tank inside.

Experts from the regional archaeological service conducted a preliminary survey, which concluded that the tank was in a good enough condition to justify its excavation. First, the vehicle's top hatch was removed, and Gorcynski was able to climb inside (you can imagine what sort of emotional boost this must have given him). He quickly established that it was a "female" tank of the Mark IV variety. In an incredible stroke of luck, almost all of its parts were in place, except for the gear box and transmission chains.

Gorcynski used his own savings to pay for the "exhumation", which took four days to complete.

When the first joy of discovery subsided a little, Gorcynski undertook a thorough research into the pedigree of the tank. He knew that all 476 British tanks engaged in the Battle of Cambrai bore an ID code starting with a letter, designating the battalion they belonged to and followed by the vehicle's number. No marks of any kind had survived on the excavated machine, but it was widely known that mostly Battalion D vehicles were engaged in the battle in the Flesquières area.

Gorcynski wrote to the curators of the Tank Museum in Bovington, UK, which held some of Batallion D's records, and soon received from them a photo of a tank D51, taken by second lieutenant F.G. Heap, its commander, several days after the Battle of Cambrai in which four of his crew members lost their lives. The photo left no doubt that the tank he had found was D-51. That was how – thanks to Mr Gorcynski's passion and perseverance, Deborah's true identity was established.

Down Memory Lane

It is interesting to note that second lieutenant Frank Heap, the tank commander, was subsequently awarded the Military Cross for saving the lives of the remaining three members of his crew, and a number of his descendants have visited 'Deborah' in her temporary abode inside the converted barn.

Why temporary? Because in 2016, a new museum of the Battle of Cambrai, with 'Deborah' as the main exhibit and Gorcynski as the main guide, will open in the village. Then, I am sure, even the long-suffering archaelogist's wife will feel more relaxed about her husband's much too frequent trysts with his beloved mechanical "mistress". 

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