Travels on the Somme Part Thirteen – La Boisselle: The Glory Hole

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At the south western edge of La Boisselle, a right fork off the main road leads us on to the road to Contalmaison, a very short distance up which, on the right side of the road, and easily missed, actually, if you are unaware they’re there,…

Panorama bb

…are the craters of the Glory Hole.

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On 28th September 1914, the German advance was finally halted by the French on the southern outskirts of La Boisselle.  As trench warfare took hold, vicious fighting ensued over a number of farm buildings that the Germans had occupied which once stood here close to the road.  In late November 1914 French engineers began tunnelling beneath the ruins and the first, small, mines were blown.

La Boisselle

From then on, both sides tunnelled beneath their opponents’ lines, exploding bigger and bigger charges, the resulting craters regularly changing hands as the Germans turned La Boisselle into a veritable fortress; when the British took over from the French in August 1915, tunnelling activities got deeper and charges bigger still.  By the summer of 1916 No Man’s Land, in the area of the Glory Hole (tinted green on the map), was littered with craters from eighteen months of underground activity, making attacking across this treacherous terrain even more difficult for the advancing British troops.

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There’s a description of the dreadful conditions encountered at the Glory Hole by an officer of the Dorsets who was here in March 1916 on the excellent La Boisselle Study Group website, from which I hope they won’t mind me borrowing an extract; “In the afternoon I and a companion went forward to inspect the mine craters, which my company was to take over in the course of the night. We passed down our front-line trench towards the ruins of the cemetery through which our line ran. East of the cemetery was the heaped white chalk of several mine craters. Above them lay the shattered tree stumps and litter of brick which had once been the village of La Boisselle. We progressed slowly down the remains of a trench and came to the craters, and the saps which ran between them. Here there was no trench, only sand-bags, one layer thick, and about two feet above the top of the all-prevailing mud. The correct posture to adopt in such circumstances is difficult to determine; we at any rate were not correct in our judgement, as we attracted the unwelcome attentions of a sniper, whose well-aimed shots experienced no difficulty in passing through the sand-bags. We crawled away and came in time to a trench behind the cemetery, known as Gowrie Street. Liquid slime washed over and above our knees; tree trunks riven into strange shapes lay over and alongside the trench. The wintry day threw greyness over all. The shattered crosses of the cemetery lay at every angle about the torn graves, while one cross, still erect by some miracle, overlooked the craters and the ruins of La Boisselle. The trenches were alive with men, but no sign of life appeared over the surface of the ground. Even the grass was withered by the fumes of high explosive. Death indeed, was emperor here.”

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It won’t surprise you to know that in places here the trenches were no more than forty yards apart.  Along with the mining activities, trench raids were common, particularly in the build up to the Battle of the Somme.  On 26th June 1916, for example, two days into the week-long bombardment that preceded the opening of the battle, the British released poison gas from over 600 gas cylinders on either side of the Glory Hole, but the subsequent raid by the Northumberland Fusiliers failed to capture the prisoners they were targetting.

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Although it is well-known that the British exploded two vast mines at La Boisselle a couple of minutes prior to Zero Hour on 1st July 1916, it is less well-known that they were accompanied by two smaller, although still substantial (8000 lbs each), charges blown beneath the Glory Hole at the same time.

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After the war the area of the Glory Hole was deemed unsuitable for human use, and the land was bought by a local family who filled in the trenches, but left the mine craters undisturbed, and apart from thousands of munching ovine* teeth, they have remained thus ever since.

*Sheep, of course. What did you think?

Panoramammmmmm

This shot looks back towards the Albert-Bapaume road, which you can just see cresting the rise in the background (see close-up below) beyond the houses, Tara and Usna Hills rising gently in either side.  Even from this far away it is obvious how exposed the attacking British troops would have been as they appeared over the horizon.  The trees and bushes above Baldrick’s head are those that grow around the Tyneside Memorial Seat, and you can just see the junction with the main road beyond, where many of the photos I showed you last post were taken.

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Our route, however, takes us a short distance up the Contalmaison road past the Glory Hole (the houses, by the way, are very much still La Boisselle, the northern part of the village, and the main road through it, being out of shot to our left)…

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…where the signpost to Becourt also points the way ‘a Grande Mine’.  Which happens to be the way we’re heading (if you click the link).

I suppose I ought to remind newer readers at this point (sorry to bore you regs) that these visits to the Somme battlefield are more snapshots of places of interest, rather than the more detailed tours we embark upon in Flanders.

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