The Durand Group: modern conflict archaeology beneath the Western Front

Archaeologists are well aware of the contested nature of all landscapes, but modern conflict landscapes tend to be more contested than would be the norm, and this is particularly so in regard to the old battlefields of the First World War. Different parties and groups often claim these places simultaneously and they are, at the same time; ritual spaces, tourist locations and political entities – not to mention landscapes that remain lethal in nature due to the sheer quantity of unexploded munitions that still lie beneath the now-ploughed fields. They are also sites of national (and personal) pride and heritage, requiring that great care and respect is taken while archaeological research is being conducted.

It is essential then that any organisation working on the Western Front recognises the powerful emotions that still echo in these venerable spaces, as well as what the consequences can be if the utmost respect is not paid. When surface archaeology is conducted, excavations tend to be fairly conspicuous. It is often possible to watch these digs taking place and observe the care and respect that is paid, but when archaeological research is carried out beneath the surface of the earth no such public guardianship is possible. The nature of subterranean archaeology requires a self-governance, for not only does work underground carry with it certain risks, but also many members of the public would not be keen to crawl through low-level fighting tunnels, deep underground, to police the conduct of the operations being conducted. Therefore, archaeological professionalism is essential. The teams working in these environments must be self-critical in their work and always aware of the importance of their research to the wider world.

October 2000 – Excavation into O.64.E incline (Copyright Durand Group. Available as CC BY-NC-SA)

One of the most respected organisations working on the Western Front today is the Durand Group. This organisation is arguably the world-authority on subterranean warfare during the First World War and it consists of a cadre of professionals made up of retired and still serving members of the military (encompassing firearms and bomb disposal experts) academics, archaeologists, leading authorities on the First World War, mechanics, engineers, Health and Safety professionals, a film maker, a doctor and three surveyors. Several members of the group have been decorated for their armed service and all are vastly experienced in conducting archaeological research underground. Safety is of primary importance and stringent risk assessments are carried out before any project is given the go-ahead. The group has also formed extensive links across Northern France with landowners, farmers, politicians and archaeologists, and this, along with their professionalism, has enabled access to some of the most unique parts of the old frontlines – the many souterraines, dugouts and complex tunnel systems that lie undisturbed, deep below the surface of the old battlefields.

The group’s genesis goes back to the late 1980s, when a Royal Engineer team investigated several kilometres of the tunnel systems that rest beneath the Canadian memorial site at Vimy Ridge. These initial explorations established that there were at least two primed and undetonated mine charges lying dormant in the tunnels, one of which was the 6,000 lb Durand mine, located beneath a public area on the memorial site. Further archival research also indicated the possibility of a much larger charge of 20,000 lbs (the Broadmarsh mine) situated beneath a busy road junction. In June 1955, one of the unused mines from the Battle of Messines exploded in a thunderstorm and although there were no human casualties (only a cow was killed) the potential for these huge charges to cause harm was obvious.

Durand Group members Nick Pryor and Aidan Cleary at the top of a deep shaft in the Copse system near Loos. (Photo Matt Leonard. Copyright the Durand Group. Available as CC BY-NC-SA)

In 1996, Andy Prada, Managing Director of Fougasse Films Ltd and an independent filmmaker, approached Lt Colonel Philip Robinson, who had conducted the initial investigations beneath the Vimy site, in regard to making a documentary concerning one of the unused mine charges at Messines. However, this proved to be too difficult to achieve, so it was agreed that the documentary should focus on the Vimy mines instead. At the same time, Veteran Affairs Canada, who had become increasingly concerned about the volume of explosives lying beneath their memorial site, asked Robinson and Prada to investigate the viability of the Broadmarsh mine during the course of making their documentary. A small team of specialists accessed the system and determined that although a substantial quantity of explosives remained (in the form of boxed and tinned ammonal) the initiation system had been removed and there was no chance of a detonation occurring.

The success of these initial investigations beneath the immortal Vimy battlefield prompted one team member, Lt Colonel Mike Watkins, MBE (a leading international expert in explosives and member of the Royal Logistic Corp) to propose the formation of a specialist group that would continue research into the First World War tunnel systems. Shortly afterwards, Lt Col Watkins successfully removed the decaying detonators and primers from the Durand mine, rendering it inert. As a consequence, the fledgling team adopted the name ‘Durand Group’ and defined their ethos as a “fraternal association of individuals who have voluntarily undertaken to work together to further research and investigation into military related subterranean features”. With this the Durand Group was born and this unique organisation promptly began to reveal many of the hitherto unknown aspects of the Great War.

The group continued to support Veteran Affairs Canada and investigated many kilometres of tunnels beneath Vimy Ridge, but in 1998 they received a tragic setback when Lt Colonel Watkins was tragically killed by a collapse of clay while accessing another tunnel system beneath Vimy. He is commemorated by a dignified and fitting memorial in the form of a bronze plaque, which was erected by Veterans Affairs Canada and is today situated near to the entrance of the Grange subway at Vimy Ridge.

After the loss of such a dedicated member of the team it was decided that the best way to honour Lt Colonel Watkins was to continue the group’s work, allowing for his vision to be realised. Accordingly, the group has since undertaken a wide variety of projects across the old Western Front, surveying, recording and investigating underground features ranging from deep tunnel systems to large souterraines, all of which were utilised by the various armies of the war.

Team member Tony Edwards investigating a subterranean command and control centre, probably destroyed by a camouflet mine. (Photograph Matt Leonard. Copyright the Durand Group. Available as CC BY-NC-SA)

The most notable of these investigations include approximately six kilometres of British and German tunnel systems beneath Vimy – which incorporated the disarming of two further mine charges, assisting the Arras municipality in investigating the Ronville tunnel system, opening 600 metres of the Goodman system beneath Vimy, gaining access to the Maison Blanche souterraine at Neuville St Vaast, exploration of a German listening tunnel at Serre and the archaeological investigation of a German deep defensive system and the British First Avenue at Beaumont Hamel. The group’s latest project involves the exploration of the extensive ‘Copse’ and ‘Hill 70’ tunnel systems at Loos, a project being carried out with the support of the local authority and the Association Sur Les Traces de Grande Guerre.

All activities and excavations are underpinned by extensive archival research and a variety of non intrusive techniques have been employed in the course of investigations. Due to the geology of much of the Somme and Artois regions of France geophysical techniques, including Ground Penetrating Radar, Electro Magnetic Induction and Soil Resitivity Surveys, have proved of limited value. However, drilling combined with remote cameras on fibre optic cable has proved to be a useful reconnaissance tool. This method has also provided means of introducing power and air lines to deep systems, which one one occasion facilitated access to a mine charge at the head of a ‘blind’ tunnel.

In 2004 this Hands England Rig was used to drill into Goodman Subway 1 at Vimy. (Copyright the Durand Group. Available as CC BY-NC-SA)

These research projects have exposed the importance of tunnel systems and underground features to a wider audience, and served to place the relevance of underground warfare during the conflict in its proper context. This, in turn, has done much to dispel commonly held myths concerning the perceived lack of competence in the way in which the war was conducted, and shown how First World War battlefields were diverse and ambiguous, multi-dimensional entities upon which modern industrial warfare was waged, with skill, precision and tactical expedience.

Members of the group recording graffiti and carvings in the Maison Blanche souterraine. (Copyright the Durand Group. Available as CC BY-NC-SA)

Many of the subterranean features investigated contained various items of graffiti and intricate carvings – material culture from the war that has revealed much concerning the life, experience and thoughts of the soldiers that served in the conflict. With so much of the old battlefields now reclaimed, these hidden worlds provide archaeological and anthropological data that cannot be found anywhere else along the old frontlines. The combined skills of the group have allowed many of these objects to be deciphered, and arrangements have been made for some of the relatives of those who fought in the war to visit these unique, subterranean spaces in order to witness their ancestors’ traces.

All results from the group’s work are published in multimedia reports, allowing findings to be disseminated to the wider public and the group have produced several films and DVDs concerning their work. The importance and relevance of the group’s research has also been showcased by two Bachelor of Arts dissertations, one Masters degree and a current PhD thesis, in which modern academic frameworks have been melded with cutting edge approaches in order to shed new light into this dark and forgotten world.

A pump room in the T21 system beneath Vimy Ridge. (Copyright Durand Group. Available as CC BY-NC-SA)

The Honorary president of the Group is Lord Astor of Hever, a grandson of Field Marshal Haig, and it is this covenants, along with the dedicated, professional and academic approach of the Durand Group, that is allowing for new insights into the conflict to be revealed, almost a hundred years after the start of this ‘war to end all wars’.

More information on the Durand Group can be found on their website

A selection of the group’s multimedia reports can be found at


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About Matt Leonard

Dr Matthew Leonard is a modern conflict archaeologist and the author of Poppyganda, published by Uniform Press. His PhD research concerned the engagement of man and the underground worlds of the Western Front during the First World War. As a conflict archaeologist, his research adopts a modern interdisciplinary approach, incorporating elements of anthropology, military history and archaeology. He is using this framework to explore how these subterranean landscapes, which themselves are a distinctive kind of conflict landscape with their own repertoire of material culture of the Great War, were created and experienced, and how existentialism, sensorial interaction and the human body coped with and mediated the extreme pressures of war life underground. Matthew is a member of the Durand Group and carries out frequent fieldwork in France beneath the battlefields of the First World War. As part of a select group of academics, he is helping to advise the BBC on their television, radio and online coverage of the anniversary of the war. He is also a contributor to the edited volume Beyond the Dead Horizon: Studies in Modern Conflict Archaeology and a regular feature writer for Military History Monthly. More information concerning Matthew's research can be found on his website
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