Just outside Zonnebeke church, temporarily erected white boards surround the entrance to a complex of subterranean chambers that, for six months this year, has been opened to allow the public a look inside a genuine, bona fide, British dugout, Great War vintage.
Just before we take a look ourselves,…
…there’s a plaque on the church that we should visit first (one wonders how many of the dugout visitors even notice it).
The church at Zonnebeke was totally destroyed during the war, and this particular Canadian Artillery battery used the ruins as a gun emplacement during the fighting for Passchendaele.
On to the dugouts. The four inset photographs show 3D plans of the bunker we shall be visiting. Clockwise from top left (click the main picture to enlarge): Entrance steps; blocked tunnels to the right and ahead of the entrance; the main tunnel and rooms, entrance top left; final room, end of tunnel and exit.
There were about a dozen of us, and we had just twenty minutes underground. A hundred years ago a second gas blanket (there would have been one at the top of the stairs) would have been fitted where the plastic sheeting at the bottom now allows us access.
Immediately on our right at the bottom of the steps, this tunnel appears to be uncompleted (note the bowed ceiling beams, and the broken one near the end of the chamber),…
…the boards at the end, wedged on either side, and the lone pillar beyond, suggesting work still being done.
…and ahead of us another tunnel, this one apparently blocked by an earthfall at some point.
Pumps, without which we would not be down here; the whole complex would be under water, just as it had been for seventy one years until rediscovered by archaeologists in 1989, and indeed has been for much of the time since,…
…although you wouldn’t exactly call it dry today. Still at the bottom of the entrance steps, we finally turn left,…
…by which time,…
…most of the rest of our party are off and running. Almost literally!
Three minutes, and that’s Zonnebeke dugouts done and dusted. Which gave Baldrick, myself, the tour guide and a couple of others, some seventeen minutes down here in relative peace.
Looking back towards the entrance as we begin to explore the main gallery. The roof above us is sixteen foot below the surface, the main gallery about ninety five feet long,…
…and there are five rooms, for soldiers to rest in, or for storage, I would think, built off the main gallery.
The dugout was begun on 20th January 1918 by 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, and handed over on 24th March to 254th Tunnelling Company (the only tunnelling company to include a Victoria Cross winner in its ranks, although Sapper William Hackett did not live to tell his tale).,…
…whose tenure was much briefer, bearing in mind that the German assault in Flanders, Operation Georgette, would begin on 9th April.
I just like this shot, okay!
At head height, on the other side of the gallery, this aperture is blocked by one of the tunnellers (and archaeologists) worst nightmares, a roof collapse.
Beneath the orange-tinged surface, stained from the many rusting steel beams down here, you can see the blue-grey Ypres clay, to be found beneath the surface at varying levels from the Flanders coast to Vimy Ridge, that the tunnellers searched for when they first drilled bore holes to gauge the suitability of the geology for subterranean activity.
The roof above us looks sturdy enough (above & below, shooting blindly into the gloom above me)…
…as does the floor beneath our feet.
The steel girders less so. But then water, and don’t forget these chambers were flooded for the best part of a century, is kinder to timber than metal.
Again looking back towards the entrance, the first room we photographed now on the left, the aperture with the roof collapse through the gap between the pillars,…
…and turning to our right, the second room.
Baldrick catches your photographer at work.
Now that, my friends, is a rockfall, I think you’ll agree.
And while I show you more shots of this second room, a little history. On 10th November 1917 the Battle of Passchendaele finally came to its soggy conclusion. The British and their allies held the Passchendaele Ridge at long last, but the nearly three and a half months of fighting had left a wasteland for miles behind the British front line, with little remaining cover from the German artillery that never stopped hurling shells into the British rear area. The men who had spent the first half of 1917 preparing the ground for the Battle of Messines in early June, the British, Australians & Canadians of the specialist tunnelling companies, were whisked north to Passchendaele where they hastily began constructing numerous dugouts, deep enough to withstand the German guns.
In December 1917 & January 1918, 25,000 tunnellers and 50,000 attached infantrymen were involved in the building of near on two hundred dugouts of various sizes, many in the commune of Zonnebeke, little knowing that the German offensive in early April would sweep through this hard-won territory in a matter of days, in some sectors just hours.
Consequently some of the dugouts (including the most well-known, the Vampire dugout), had only been in use for a few weeks if at all, and many were still in the process of being constructed when the Germans captured them. Perhaps they used some themselves, but evidence of this appears slim, and after the war the entrances were closed up and the subterranean chambers forgotten.
In 1983 the Bremen Dugout (now collapsed and pulled down, although the public had been allowed to enter it as recently as the late 1990s!) was discovered, and a few years later, during excavations to find the 12th Century crypt of the Augustinian Abbey that once stood where Zonnebeke church now stands, another dugout came to light, and all these years later we get the opportunity to set foot in it.
Again, looking back at the entrance,…
…before we encounter room three,…
…the little cross left by a young lad who, I gather, asked permission first. How long ago I’m not sure, but the guide said they might leave it there, so not long, it would seem.
Checking the pic. Yep, that’ll do.
They say there is evidence of bunk beds in one of the rooms, although the closest I can see is perhaps that wide timber board propped up in the left background, and is that really any different to the beams used for the walls of this room? And anyway, surely, in order to construct bunk beds the central pillars in the room would have to be notched to accept the wooden slats of the bed frames?
While we are here, spare a thought for the tunnellers working in appalling conditions down here, in light far worse than this, certainly sploshing about in the vile Flanders mud and slime that was simply everywhere, and ever fearful of the German shell that might just find the dugout entrance.
Once more, looking back the way we have come, and up on the wall to the right,…
…an original wedge, to ensure no slippage of the beams. Because the dugout was never put to proper use, the archaeologists who first excavated it in the late 1980s found far fewer artefacts than at some other (trench) sites, but I believe that buttons, remains of a shovel, a hammer and some rubber waders (wise) that they did find are now on show in the nearby Passchendaele Museum, and I intend to photograph them next year when I find myself on an enforced visit to the museum (which, being an enforced visit, I am rather looking forward to – long-time readers will know that I much prefer being out in the field, but if you gotta go museuming, then make the most of it, that’s what I say).
I can’t see any obvious candle marks on the central pillars, but doubtless there are some.
The fourth room, and another serious rockfall on the right,…
…along with a future one on the left.
I never really dreamt that I would ever find myself in such a place, standing in the gloom of a dripping underground gallery, photographing such a thing from just a few feet away.
The fifth and final room (above & below),…
…the girders holding the ceiling suffering after all these years.
One of the truly unique things about this dugout is that the agencies involved in opening it for the public chose to keep the gallery and rooms as authentic as possible, doing nothing more than draining the complex and adding low lighting. Good on them.
So this really is as authentic as you are ever going to get.
Before our time is up, these views look down the full length of the main gallery,…
…from either side of the pillars.
And finally, the way out, but not the original steps. No, they are too dangerous to be used, but you can still see them,…
…if you peer through the modern ones.
Zonnebeke church. On November 10th this year, exactly one hundred years on from the official end to the Battle of Passchendaele, the Zonnebeke church dugouts will be closed once more, the pumps will be turned off, and in a matter of five days or so (really, I checked) the waters will have risen and submerged everything within. For ever.
What a privilege to have had the opportunity to be there for twenty minutes, and what a privilege to be able to show you all, and I know that many of you have absolutely no chance of going there in person, around by extension. I hope it’s the next best thing.