WWI's Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig

Series 1 - Episode 2: Earthquaking the Ridge

WWI's Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig

Sorry, this episode is no longer available to watch on Demand 5.

Find out why

At Messines, the archaeological dig has uncovered some of the best preserved WW1 trenches, bunkers and tunnels ever discovered in Flanders. As the diggers risk their lives among the unexploded shells, hand grenades and bullets that still litter the ground just inches under the surface, military historians colour in the picture of exactly what happened here.

At Messines, the archaeological dig continues and focuses at events in 1917, when the British attempted to undermine German strong points along the ridge in an attempt to break the stalemate of trench warfare.

Just below the surface, Belgian archaeologist Simon Verdegem and his team discover German tunnels crossing the 2km route of a new pipeline which is being laid around the town. These tunnels reflect the new phase of warfare at Messines. Joining Simon are military historians Professor Peter Doyle from University College London and Paul Reed, who has personally interviewed over 300 WWI veterans. Also at the dig is Major Alex Turner, a serving infantry officer in the British Army who recently won the Distinguished Service Order in Afghanistan. No stranger to combat as well as shell fire, Alex is well qualified to help to tell the story of the 1917 Battle of Messines.

British tunnellers detonated 19 underground bombs on 7th June 1917, killing up to 10,000 Germans in around 20 seconds. This provided the springboard for a bigger battle in which Allied troops attempted to break through the German lines and end the deadlock of the Western Front.

Among the discoveries at the dig are a cupboard full of German stick grenades, a case of British machine gun bullets, artillery shells and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, confirming that this was one of World War I's bloodiest killing grounds.

We join Johan Vanderwalle, Belgium’s leading expert on the underground war, as his team drop a camera more than 60ft down a German mineshaft close to what is said to be the world's biggest unexploded bomb. It was here at Petite Douve that British miners were detected in the summer of 1916 after digging a 250m tunnel and laying 50,000lbs of explosives under the German front lines. The Germans exploded an underground counter mine, killing three British tunnellers. Their bodies lie entombed beneath the German strong point to this day.

All episodes 

Comments (31)

  • Keith

    6 months ago


    So poignant to watch as my grandfather was there (3rd Worcestershire Regiment) and was actually wounded in the leg on that very day 7 June 2016 - in some ways fortunate to be evacuated. Perhaps it was the big mine explosions (heard many Tommies were stunned or wounded by the British mines), or German counter fire. How anyone survived the mental trauma is amazing. Wonder if it is known where the 3rd Worc. Reg. were on Messines Ridge that day.

  • colin gray -uncle of andrew

    11 months ago

    colin gray -uncle of andrew

    my father was a miner in the west yorks who was transferred to the royal engineers for the work on hill 60,but he would not talk about it i found out by research

  • andrew gray

    11 months ago

    andrew gray

    like to say my grandfather was one the miners there Thomas gray

  • This comment was removed by a moderator

  • Stephen

    over 1 year ago


    Am puzzled by Channel 5 advertising Episodes 1 & 2 being available until Nov 2013, yet I, and many others, it seems, find it now unavailable on Demand 5. What is the real explanation, please? Are they waiting till enough people ask for it?

  • Ron Slater

    over 1 year ago

    Ron Slater

    Paul Reed is the best WW1 guide around - try Leger WW1 Battlefield Tours, and see/hear for yourselves...

  • s wing

    over 1 year ago

    s wing

    taken back by how much the army went through, why after so many years do we still fight, people around the world should live together in peace now.

  • keith

    over 1 year ago


    was away to messines in june seen it all absolutely amazing i think this programme really brings it home

  • julez Court

    over 1 year ago

    julez Court

    Still not Playing, been a week now...:) cmon sort it out...Please..

  • Richard Pursehouse

    over 1 year ago

    Richard Pursehouse

    Yet another programme on Messines yet no mention of the 40 yard by 40 yard concrete model of the II Anzac corps front on Cannock Chase - built AFTER the battle in May 1918 by New Zealand troops

  • TD

    over 1 year ago


    This isn't playing?!

  • thecoffindodger

    over 1 year ago


    its not playing

  • chris weekes

    over 1 year ago

    chris weekes

    A griping and well presented programme bringing to life the Battle of almost 100 years ago. It is hoped that the work will continue across the western front as we move towards the centenary enabling all to realise the sacrifice of ALL of those men regardless of nationality who had to endure the most attrotious battle conditions ever

  • Chris Aldridge

    over 1 year ago

    Chris Aldridge

    A brilliant and informative program. Lets have more. The sacrifices made should never be forgotten.

  • Neil

    over 1 year ago


    Excellent program - Channel 5 you need to have far more of these types of documentaries.


    over 1 year ago



  • Dave Hastings

    over 1 year ago

    Dave Hastings

    Very good program. let's have more of this as 2014 approaches. ave visited a fe ww1 battle field's and will go to messines next.

  • corax

    over 1 year ago


    lol when they found the tunnel they archaeologist said that they wenrt on any map or Ariel photographs well obviously they weren't on Ariel photographs they were under ground

  • Ian S

    over 1 year ago

    Ian S

    Great Program... but you've got have the adverts... however annoying they are

  • Ian Leggett

    over 1 year ago

    Ian Leggett

    Vanguard They were bogged down by water and mud filled craters.

  • Ken Stoat

    over 1 year ago

    Ken Stoat

    What a splendid program, well done. It would be nice to have more intelligent programs on the Great War instead of the usual 'Lion's led by Donkeys' stuff.

  • aldun

    over 1 year ago


    these advertisers have no shame!

  • HM

    over 1 year ago


    The Mud @ Passechendale, after the constant Barrage!

  • dog

    over 1 year ago


    time to get this back in schools

  • steve

    over 1 year ago


    because of the mud churned by by their artillery barrage and added to by rain.This led to the battle of paechendale.

  • Ken Lee

    over 1 year ago

    Ken Lee

    My Great Uncle died of his wounds after the battle of Messines, he was a sapper in the Royal Engineers. This program has given me an insight into what he must have gone through. Thanks

  • Tim

    over 1 year ago


    When i was younger I would read a comic called War lord for me Charlies war was the best part with events supported by this program I didn't know at the time how close to history the tails told i read

  • Tim

    over 1 year ago


    thank you for this historical program wen i was younger i used to read a comic called warlord to me at that time charlies wore covered some of the historical facts supported by this program teaching history to children in a comic strip story without ray-guns

  • comment is awaiting moderation

  • Jamie Vans

    over 1 year ago

    Jamie Vans

    Not least because of the problem of getting supplies forward quickly enough to keep up withe advance. Not to mention the difficulty of protecting the sides of any salient projecting into enemy territory.

  • BrokenArrow93

    over 1 year ago


    Why didn't the British Army keep going after breaking thru at Messiness!