WWI's Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig

Series 1 - Episode 2: Earthquaking the Ridge

WWI's Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig

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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.

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