The War Underground: An Overview

When war broke out in 1914, no one could have possibly foreseen what the conflict would be really like. At the time, in the common idiom, war was a glorious business, an exciting adventure that offered the chance to become a man, a modern-day knight who would adorn the pages of great books about heroism and the majesty of empire. Media, as we know it today, simply did not exist. There was no 24-hour news coverage or the steady stream of television images from the front that we are so used to seeing today. For most of the war, coverage and photographic imagery would be tightly controlled and although the publication of the daily casualty figures would be available in black and white every morning, these cold numbers were deliberately kept distant from their visual and visceral reality.

The violence with which this industrial war was prosecuted would have been an extreme shock to the system for the troops that endured the hardships of the front lines. Ideas of glory and adventure were soon consumed by the inordinate quantities of materiel and the sheer magnitude of the firepower that was deployed by both sides. But perhaps the strangest consequence of this new and dreadful type of warfare was to be that men would not be able to live as they had done in previous conflicts. In this war, they would have to live below the surface of the earth, seeking refuge from the modern killing weapons that plied their trade with such ruthless effectiveness. In turn, they would become more animal than man, forever digging themselves deeper into the earth that they were slowly destroying with the new and insidious technologies of modern warfare.

For before long, all life at the front would be lived underground, either in trenches or dugouts, or even deeper beneath the surface in caves, souterraines – medieval underground quarries – or complex tunnel systems, designed to defend the frontlines from subterranean attack and then take the fight to the enemy in a deadly, troglodyte game of cat and mouse. The battlefields of Europe and beyond would be underpinned by this subterranean world, for it was an essential part of the bloody business of trench warfare and the attritional nature of a conflict, where technology and industrial might had far outpaced long-outdated notions of strategy and tactics.


On arrival at the front, soldiers were soon glad of the protection afforded to them by the trenches, places that they would learn to call home. For these fragile, man-made fissures in the earth would provide them with some measure of safety from the unpredictable artillery barrages and the sniper’s bullets that would stalk the lines each day. A direct hit could still dissolve a trench into the Mudscape of No Man’s land, but nevertheless they offered a measure of security and a respite from the terrors and dangers of the Front. It did not take long for the trenches to be expanded on, as man got used to his new, troglodyte existence.

Dugouts were soon excavated to provide improved living quarters for officers and these could also act as command and control centres, or dressing stations that were protected from the mechanical destruction taking place on the surface. Along with the forward trenches that faced the enemy, a complex network of other trenches was also created. These allowed for communications back to the rear, the evacuations of casualties to clearing stations and the manoeuvre of fresh soldiers to the battlefield. Trenches were also dug into No Man’s Land for observation or forward machine gun posts, and by the time the lines settled down into the stalemate so associated with the war, a semi-subterranean spider’s web had been created that stretched from one end of each theatre of conflict to the other.

A consequence of this was that very little of the war could actually be seen from the frontlines. To be above ground during daylight would mean almost certain death or serious injury, and when attacks occurred in daylight, little could be witnessed through the smoke, gas and palpable fear. A new world had been created, one which would test the previously defined notion of man’s relationship with his landscape, and one that would ultimately lead to the creation of a new type of society: a ‘conflict culture’ the likes of which had not been seen before, or indeed since.

Caves, souterraines and the expansion of the subterranean domain

Gradually, this new subterranean world was expanded into the many ancient quarries that existed beneath the Western front. For centuries, the French had been using the chalk that lay below a thin layer of earth for building their towns and villages, leaving large voids deep in the belly of the earth. The Royal Engineers, along with their Canadian and Australian counterparts, as well as the German Pioneer battalions, expanded these systems to impressive dimensions that could accommodate vast numbers of troops close to the front. Hospitals, command and control centres, dormitories and even cemeteries were built below ground to service a modern army at war. The Germans, their lines designed to be permanent, incorporated running water and electricity into their underground spaces. Wood, concrete and metal were also utilised to furnish the soldiers with a degree of comfort and greater security.

As this new subterranean world started to take shape, soldiers began to adorn the walls of their new domain with their thoughts, memories, hopes and fears in the form of graffiti and intricate carvings. Graffiti ranged from basic inscriptions of name, rank and number to slogans, poetry and reflections of life before the war. For instance at Maison Blanche, a souterraine near the village of Neuville St Vasst, Private Lacey, who would not survive the war, drew pictures on the bare chalk walls of the animals on his family farm back home in Canada, a link to an idyllic past which was forever shattered by a global war.

Sometimes, crude headstones would be carved, remembering comrades that had died in combat, reflecting the appalling casualty rate of the war. At the Froidmont souterraine, on the Chemin des Dames, is one of these memory objects, listing the names of six men, asking that they may Rest in Peace. Yet, strangely, none of these men died during the war. Perhaps it was carved as a last testament, something that would remember them if they perished, or perhaps it was a way of confronting fate. It is one of the many examples of the deeply ambiguous nature of the First World War’s material culture.

As well as graffiti, men left detailed, personal and intricate carvings in the chalk of the underworlds. Many of the soldiers that inhabited these unique places were not professional soldiers, but civilian artisans, such as stone-masons, carpenters, painters or craftsmen, that had signed up to go to war. Incredible carvings of regimental badges, symbols of national identity and personal objects that linked the soldiers with their far off homes can be found in the troglodyte spaces that still exist all along the Western Front. For example at Maison Blanche there is a large letterbox carved into the souterraine walls, a physical and emotional link to the soldier’s previous lives. Beneath the Chemin des Dames can be found carvings of the ships that brought the American Expeditionary Force to France and below the Soissonais can be found large paintings of the French national emblem along with murals displaying religious iconography, linking man, the Earth and God together in the most vivid way.

These varied and ambiguous objects are together some of the finest material culture from the conflict. With much of the surface traces of the war now consumed by the farmer’s plough, or the relentless march of modernity, the subterranean worlds beneath the old frontlines are some of the last remaining archaeological and anthropological vestiges that can still provide tangible evidence of the soldier’s life at war.

Mining Systems and the art of defence and attack

Very quickly the trench lines of the Western Front ran from the sea, in the north, to Switzerland, in the south. It was now impossible to flank the enemy’s lines and the business of attacking over No Man’s Land was hazardous in the extreme, so both sides looked to attack from below. However, before this could be achieved, a network of tunnels had to be created, going ever deeper underground, to protect the lines from the enemy’s similar intentions. In the Ypres salient, around Flanders, tunnels were dug into the sodden clay and reinforced with timber. Along much of the rest of the Front they were dug into the harder chalk, which proved to be excellent material for the construction of tunnels. A soldier’s worst nightmare was to be blown up from beneath the relative sanctuary of the trenches and as early as October 1914 the French had began mining operations in the Argonne region of France. The Germans were quick to follow suit and by the end of November 1914 both sides had conducted mining operations against the other.

The end result was a complex system of tunnels that mirrored the trench lines above. Once the defensive constructions were complete, offensive mining began on a massive scale. Today, at certain places along the old frontlines can still be seen the effects of this clandestine war. The vast Lochnagar crater at La Boiselle on the Somme, the Spanbroekmolen at Messines and the butchered landscape of Vauquois, near Verdun, all hint at the awesome power of the explosives that were utilised. Tunnels, with a large chamber at the end, would be dug under the enemy’s lines and then packed with explosives. When detonated, these mines would atomise the defenders and annihilate their fortifications, allowing for the infantry to attack with devastating effectiveness. These large mines greatly aided large-scale infantry attacks, but smaller mines, or camouflets, were also used to collapse the enemy’s tunnels. Many miners, on both sides, were to lose their lives in this manner, blown to pieces or buried alive beneath the battlefields, where many of them still lie today. During the conflict 181 British and Dominion tunnelling officers lost their lives underground and although there are no official figures for the enlisted men, it is estimated that at least 1,500 were killed.

June 1916 saw mining reach its peak along the British frontlines in France and Belgium, with 101 mines and camouflets exploded by the British and 126 by the Germans in a single month. Tunnels were now regularly dug to a depth of 100 feet and at Messines, on 7th June 1917, the full force and ability of the British tunnelling companies was displayed in the most vivid manner. That morning, on a front of just over 14 kilometres, 19 huge mines, totalling 937, 450 lbs of explosive, were detonated in sequence beneath the German lines, signalling the start of the Battle of Messines. The explosions were so loud that the noise was heard in Downing Street. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 Germans were killed in the devastating explosions and within an hour one of the most fortified positions on the Western Front was taken with relatively few casualties on the British side. One survivor of the attack on the Messines ridge talked of chunks of debris ‘the size of houses’ raining down form the sky after the massive detonation of the Spanbroekmolen mine – highlighting the awesome destructive power of this industrial weapon of war.

The Beginnings and the End

The undermining of enemy fortifications can be traced back to the fall of the walls of Jericho. It was used right through the Middle Ages and has been utilised in more modern conflicts too, such as Vietnam and most recently by the Taliban in the Tora Bora cave complex in Afghanistan: should the need arise; it could still be used as a means of waging war in the future. But it was during the First World War that it was first adopted on an industrial scale.

Different nationalities approached the business of tunnelling in their own unique ways. The Germans would often drive their shafts deeper than the British and French, and then line their tunnels with timber, even if they were dug into the hard chalk. The British would tend to dig long, defensive lateral tunnels, which would run parallel to the front line trench, from which to drive fighting tunnels into No Man’s Land. The French, on the other hand, would usually dig smaller, shallower and more direct tunnels, preferring to minimise their footprint.

The British use of tunnels and mining operations can be largely attributed to the tireless efforts of Major (later Lt Colonel) Sir John Norton Griffiths, a Member of Parliament and friend of Lord Kitchener. It was he who lobbied for miners and sewer constructors – known as clay-kickers – (which were better suited to the clay of Flanders) to be used on the Western Front, many of which had no military training at all, and from the humble beginnings of 170 Tunnelling Company would spring 33 British and Dominion tunnelling companies on the Western Front alone, totalling, at their peak in June 1916, almost 40,000 men just in the British Expeditionary Force. When the German, French and other nationalities’ figures are added together, it is estimated that approximately 120,000 men were involved in underground warfare, at its peak, beneath the Western Front.
In order to perfect the effectiveness of this type of warfare many technological innovations occurred. The science of explosives was perfected, allowing for different types of mines, which could be controlled with incredible accuracy. By 1915, both sides were mainly using ammonal explosives, but other types were also trialled. Special breathing equipment, termed ‘proto-apparatus’ was developed to allow for underground rescue and sophisticated listening devices, such as geophones, were employed to detect the approach of the enemy pioneers. But old tried and tested technology was also used. For example canaries were taken underground to detect for gas.

The use of underground systems for both defence and attack was common practice on the Western Front, as well as in other theatres of the conflict, such as Gallipoli. As the war entered its final phases in 1918, fewer and fewer mines were charged and tunnels dug, and many of the mining companies were utilised for other duties, such as building roads and bridges, or investigating the enemy’s underground workings, often defusing booby traps and delay mines that had been left by the retreating Germans. But by this time their job had been done and their tireless work had contributed to the eventual British victory in Europe.

The enormous size and variety of the tunnel systems that were created, the complexity of mining the enemy’s trenches and the strategic realisation of the effectiveness of this type of warfare shows that antiquated ideas of complacent generals sending men to their deaths in pointless slaughter falls somewhere short of the mark. Military High Command utilised these subterranean worlds to protect its men, wage ceaseless war on the enemy and improve strategic and tactical thinking. As well as this realisation, on the walls of innumerable dark, claustrophobic tunnels, and deep, cavernous souterraines are inscribed thousands of objects that reflect the thoughts of the men during the conflict. The underground aspect of the war is one that relatively little is known about, and is in turn often forgotten or marginalised, yet it offers perhaps the truest reflection of life and conflict during the Great War.

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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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