My Summer Holidays by Billy Quinn aged 41 and a half.
Following a recent excursion to Belgium to investigate German trench positions in the vicinity of the the village of Messines, Declan asked if I would post an entry describing my experiences …here it is.
The excavations were directed by Martin Brown and Richard Osgood, two archaeologists working with the Defence estates in England. Both are involved with No Man’s Land – a European Group for Great War Archaeology that has been working on a seasonal basis in the area of Ploegstreet (Conmines and –Warneton), Belgium. They and their team of specialists, conservators, archaeologists and volunteers have been forensically investigating WW1 positions for the past number of years and have recently published a book “Digging Up Plugstreet” recording their findings. Youo can find lots more details on their blog here.
Work this year was concentrated on excavating a number of trenches in the vicinity of the Ultimo crater, the result of one of 19 mines that exploded beneath the German lines between 0300 and 0335 in the early morning of June 7th 1917. It is thought the mines killed in excess of 10,000 Germans and the sound of the successive detonations was heard as far away as London and Dublin. The explosions coincided with the front line troops being relieved so the large number of casualties can be accounted for by both sets of soldiers being caught up in the blast. Of the dead who were not immediately obliterated many were found with no evidence of direct trauma injuries, they were simply killed by the intensity of shock wave.
Following the explosions, the allies advanced on the Messines salient from three sides and secured their first objectives within hours. In the bloody litany of allied offensive failures the battle of Messines was a total success aided by the shock and devastation of the mines, a creeping artillery barrage, and a rapid ANZAC led advance.
To famously quote General Plumer on the night before the attack, “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.” And change it they did – today the ultimo crater is approximately 70ft wide and occupies a low ridge surrounded by a small copse of trees. It is now home to ducks and wading birds, its present pastoral setting at complete odds with its violent origins.
The excavation team was quartered in the Messines Peace Village hostel for the week and our working day began at 8.30am. Work officially finished at 5.30 but such was the crew’s enthusiasm that we rarely left the site earlier than 6pm. I’m glad to report that throughout the week we enjoyed excellent weather.
A total of 6 trenches were exposed, all with particular research objectives informed by previous excavations or more recent geophysical results. I, along with a team of 5 others under the supervision of the capable Avril, was despatched to dig a communications trench that zigzagged from a rear position to the front line. What struck me most was the extent of the upcast from the explosion. Thousands of tonnes of earth erupted into the air and the resulting infill preserved much of what wasn’t destroyed in the initial blast. Equally interesting was the sheer frequency of ferric litter. Iron fragments, shrapnel balls, driving bands from shells etc were evident in every shovel full. We found Mauser rounds spent and unspent, German stick grenades, and occasional Lee Enfield casings. As we dug down we exposed the cut of the German communication trench, defined not by any revetment but silt from puddling at the base as well as post holes and the faint ghost marks of duckboards. Running along the edge of the trench we also found communication cables and the possible remains of an electrical junction box. Elsewhere other trenches exposed fire trenches with heavy corrugate, a German concrete bunker, and a midden with some truly remarkable finds (I’m not going to steal the excavators thunder in describing them, but you can check out the Plugstreet blog for more details).
All in all the excavation produced a wealth of material and adds to the existing military narrative of the period. On a personal note I want to thank all of those involved for the kindness and friendliness I experienced in the nightly gatherings over a few beers in the peace park; and particularly to Martin and Richard who ran the project with such a light touch belying their thoroughly professional manner.