WWI's Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig

Series 1 - Episode 1: The Killing Fields

WWI's Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig

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

Find out why

For eight months World War I's biggest archaeological dig has been taking place at Messines in Belgium ahead of a 2km pipeline being laid around the town. Amid the unexploded wartime shells lying inches below the surface, the diggers are uncovering some of the best-preserved trenches, bunkers and tunnels ever discovered on the Western Front.

Against the background of the dig, we reveal the story of how, after three years, the stalemate of trench warfare was finally broken by the detonation of huge mines underneath the German lines. These created the biggest explosion the world had ever seen, killing thousands in the process.

An archaeological team gathers in Flanders for a dig across one of World War I’s bloodiest killing fields. They are accompanied by specialists in bomb disposal and ordnance clearance, because the ground around the small Belgian town of Messines is still littered with unexploded shells, hand grenades and bullets from World War I. It is for this reason that the archaeologists, led by Simon Verdegem, have mechanical diggers fitted with armoured plating and glass.

Situated on the top of a seven-mile ridge, Messines had considerable strategic importance. In the autumn of 1914, German troops pushed the British (the 9th Lancers) off the ridge to the flat ground below. During that winter, both sides (including a young Adolf Hitler) dug trenches, which would be shelled for almost three years as the opposite sides attempted to break the deadlock of the Western Front. Historical researcher Alexandra Churchill tells the story of how Hitler painted the church at Messines during the winter of 1914/15 and and recalls the events of Christmas, when the two sides gathered in No Man’s Land to exchange gifts and play football.

The archaeologists quickly discover trenches, initially in poor condition, but as they approach the German front line they discover a section of trench in excellent condition but which has suffered from the impact of British shellfire. Military historian Professor Peter Doyle is amazed by how the trench reflects the damage.

Military historian and series historical consultant Paul Reed reveals how both sides developed new weapons – some of which are discovered on the dig – for fighting in the confined close quarters of the trenches. Greater horrors lay in store as the conflict escalated. Amateur historian and genealogist David Whithorn recalls the events of June 1916, when the Germans released a cloud of poison gas which engulfed the British trenches below, causing over 500 casualties. The war would then move underground in an attempt to remove the Germans from their trenches on the Messines Ridge.

All episodes