World War 1 Tunnelling Tour

As World War 1 turned into a war of deadlock and trench warfare, both sides soon realised the possibilities for launching attacks by mining underneath the enemy’s positions. From the end of 1914, the Germans, French and British began an ongoing campaign of mining and countermining in which massive explosive charges were placed under the enemy’s lines. This campaign culminated in the British attack on the Messines Ridge in June 1917 in which over one million pounds of explosive was detonated beneath the German lines. Tunnels were also dug to provide facilities such as accommodation and communication and command centres. The tunnel system prepared for The Battle of Arras could accommodate 20,000 men.

These are just some examples of sites which can be included in a tunneling tour; however, there are many more:

Railway Wood

Standing on the high ground at Railway Wood, with commanding views over Ypres, it is clear to the visitor today why this ground was so fought over; the whole area is still pockmarked with craters of mine explosion. The wood is also the site of the Royal Engineers Grave, to mark the resting place of twelve Royal Engineer tunnellers whose remains still lie here deep beneath the ground.

The Messines Ridge

The Messines Ridge, South of Ypres, was the site of the largest and most famous mine attack on 7 June 1917. Many of the craters of the 19 mines exploded on that day are still visible, including the Pool of Peace, a flooded crater which now acts as a memorial. Not all of the mines prepared for the attack were eventually used and a number still lie under the ground, including a mine containing 50,000 pounds of explosive beneath a local farm. The graves of eleven men killed by a German countermine and buried side by side in a local cemetery are also a testament to the danger of these mining operations.

Hill 60 and the Caterpillar

Hill 60 was captured by the British after one of the first successful British mine attacks; the craters from this attack and previous French mines are still very evident. Hill 60 and the nearby “Caterpillar” were the sites of the two most northerly mines exploded in The Battle of Messines. The massive Caterpillar crater leaves the visitor in no doubt as to the power of these mines and is one the most memorable sites on any itinerary. The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company worked on these mines for many weeks and their memorial is on the site; it now bears bullet holes from when Hill 60 was fought over again during the Dunkirk retreat in May 1940.

The Hawthorn Ridge

The Hawthorn Ridge mine was detonated under a German strongpoint ten minutes before British troops attacked on the first day of The Battle of the Somme. The explosion was filmed by cameraman Geoffrey Malins and is regularly shown in films and television programmes on the war. The mine proved to be a disaster as it gave the Germans a clear warning of the attack and contributed greatly to casualties on that section of the line. Standing at the mine crater today, the visitor gains an excellent view of the ground over which the British attacked on 1 July 1916 at great cost.

The Wellington Tunnels

Tunnels, which had been dug to extract stone, had existed beneath the town of Arras for centuries. These were greatly extended by the British during the First World War and thousands of men made their way out of them for the beginning of The Battle of Arras in April 1917. The Wellington Tunnels were a section of the tunnels extended by New Zealand engineers and these can be visited on paying an entrance fee. This is a fascinating and highly atmospheric site, where visitors can still see soldiers’ graffiti and the debris of their occupation.