Excavations at La Boisselle

Posted on Tuesday 19th June 2012

At the invitation of the landowners, in January 2011 a team of military historians and archaeologists commenced a long-term study of a unique piece of First World War battleground in the quaint Somme village of La Boisselle. The La Boisselle Study Group was formed to conduct a detailed archaeological, historical, technological and genealogical study into a 2.5 hectare site of undisturbed battlefield known to British troops as 'The Glory Hole'. The site is one of only three on the British sector of the Somme battlefield containing British and German trenches as well as an extensive network of wartime tunnels. After initial ground clearance and a geophysical survey a nine day dig took place in October 2011. I volunteered to join the team for the final week of a longer, 16 day dig running for the first two weeks of May 2012.
As part of May's work the team were focussed on uncovering the surviving corner of a farm building that once stood on the site. This farm, named by the Germans 'Granathof' which means 'Shell Farm' was the scene of bitter fighting between French and German units in 1914/15. According to contemporary sources the farm was completely obliterated during the First World War and yet when topsoil and rubble was removed, the stable block's brick floor was quite evident as were the farm building's foundations. As the excavations continued it was clear that one of the French trenches cut right through the stables. Large quantities of German and French ammunition were found during the excavation.
Granathof Farm - a French trench running through the stables. © La Boisselle Study Group

Owing to the ferocity of the fighting for possession of the farm it was almost inevitable that we would find human remains. During the dig two sets of remains were discovered. Unfortunately it was not possible to identify the first but an ID disc was found with the second, meaning that historical and genealogical research could swiftly be undertaken. This soldier was identified as François Marie Bideau of the 118th Infantry Regiment. The archival records show he was killed at La Boisselle on 27th December 1914. Members of the La Boisselle Study Group were able to contact his surviving relatives who were both moved and delighted at the news. It is anticipated he will be given a proper burial in a named grave later this year. Personal artefacts were also found in situ including buttons, shoe heels, ration tins, uniform webbing and part of a toothbrush.
As well as excavations on the farm work continued on the surviving network of tunnels driven under No Man's Land by French, British and German engineers. Two tunnel entrances had already been opened last year (X Incline and W Adit). A further entrance named W Incline was excavated during my time on site.
The Pump Room with air pipe visible - W incline to the right of the frame. It descends to W Shaft Chamber which, via a 50ft internal shaft, leads to the 80ft deeper mine workings. © La Boisselle Study Group

In a room next to the newly opened W incline, an air pipe was found. British records had indicated that this was the location of a specially constructed room where air was manually pumped down to the lower levels. Whilst clearing chalk spoil from the room to facilitate the removal of the surviving air pipe three small and rather unusual finds were uncovered. Firstly, a small pink, mounted gemstone was found. This was quickly followed by two decorative brooches. Maybe they were from the same pouch or pocket, a memento from his sweetheart or family kept by a tunneller? It brought home the importance of the site and the very personal nature of these keepsakes. By the end of the day this room had been cleared and the fragile air pump had been photographed in situ and removed for preservation.
Decorative finds from the Pump Room. © La Boisselle Study Group

The tunnels at La Boisselle were begun in 1914 by the French in an attempt to undermine the Germans in nearby trenches and blow them sky high. The Germans were alerted to this work and responded in kind, instigating a savage 18 month long battle fought below No Man's Land.
There are many layers to the tunnels at La Boisselle and one of the other features being excavated was a room-sized chamber around a 50ft internal shaft. Mining maps showed this led to an extensive network of tunnels at 80ft and then the 100ft level. Forty tonnes of spoil were removed by hand and a secure foundation was put in place with a steel safety cage constructed over the shaft. From this a winch was installed to lower a person down to clear out the compacted chalk now in the bottom of the shaft. The tunnels at this lower level will be investigated at a later date.
W Shaft – 50ft long down to the fighting tunnels at 80ft. © La Boisselle Study Group

At the conclusion of the 16 day dig the inclines were roofed and secured. Open Days are planned for the summer and further excavations of the area will follow, possibly as soon as October.
As a volunteer, I learnt how important it was to the La Boisselle Study Group to educate visitors on the significance of the site but also how much the villagers valued the work being done. I also found it a valuable experience from a personal and professional perspective.
For more information about the project or to donate to help keep the important work going, please visit the website: www.laboisselleproject.com.
With thanks to Annette Gaykema, Project Officer for In Memoriam 2014, a national project locating, logging, maintaining and protecting the nation's war memorials ahead of Remembrance Day 2014.

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