Beneath the Killing Fields

Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front

By Matthew Leonard

Pen & Sword 2016

beneath-the-killing-fieldsAs a frequent visitor to the battlefields I have spent hours retracing front lines, stumbling across remains of trenches and bunkers, yet too often forgetting about the battlefield that must be beneath my feet in many of the areas I have visited. The fighting underground added an extra dimension to the war, and must have preyed on the minds of many of the men fighting in the trenches, wondering if at any moment an enemy mine would blow them to pieces.

This is not an introduction to the war underground, but rather focuses on life beneath the battlefields and how the war impacted soldiers from a sensorial impact – for example how they became more attuned to sound and seeing at night. Leonard describes what it would have been like for the soldiers working underground, straining to hear for any sign of enemy mining activity whilst at the same time trying to minimise the sound of their own movement and mining. He paints a vivid picture of the claustrophobic nature of mining operations, the dark and stuffy conditions in which the men worked, and the array of dangers that they faced.

Leonard also gives a background into the work of the Durand Group, responsible for many of the underground excavations that have helped to increase knowledge about wartime underground activities; how they came about, what they do, and the areas they have explored. The members face many of the same dangers as those who originally constructed the tunnels and mines, with the obvious exception of the threat from a like-minded enemy.

Later chapters provide case studies of five of the largescale projects that the Durand Group has been involved in. These include re-discovering the huge British tunnel system at Loos; exploring the chambers and tunnels around Vimy that were so successfully used to house troops and move them to the front lines un-harassed (one subway alone was over a mile in length); and the hellish conditions experienced at Verdun and Vauquois.

The colour pictures and maps are fascinating and really help to illustrate the conditions being described. Matthew Leonard’s work shows that traditional archaeological methods can be merged with anthropological study to show how the men adapted to their conditions, and on this level gives a valuable interpretation of the sensorial impact of the war; one of my family members served with 184th Tunnelling Company and the book really made me think about what he must have experienced.

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Beneath the Killing Fields: Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front (Modern Conflict Archaeology)