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   Inside Out - East Midlands: Monday November 1, 2004


Houses in this Belgian town could collapse at any time

They called it the “Great War”, but for a detachment of East Midlands miners, who died in the trenches, their horrific legacy lives on.

Ninety years on residents of a small Belgian town are being forced to revisit their history. Inside Out finds out more.

World War One began in 1914, when the Archduke of Austria was assassinated in Bosnia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In four years over 10 million died and 20 million were wounded.

Trench warfare

But it was the introduction of trench warfare which remains the lasting image of World War One.

Among the millions of soldiers who fought in the Great War were miners from all over the country.

Their secret conflict took place below the trenches where they dug tunnels towards enemy lines.

underground tunnels
The tunnels follow an extensive underground route

Propped up by wooden pit props, the tunnels provided an underground network where soldiers could shelter from the fighting on the surface.

They also used them to try to place explosives underneath the position of the enemy.

In fact, two platoons from the Sherwood Foresters Mining Section were wiped out when they were detected by enemy forces, who blew up their tunnels.

But now, 90 years later, most of the original tunnels still remain, serving an unwelcome legacy for the residents of Nieuwpoort, a small Belgian town which was at the most northern point of the Western Front.

Behind the front

The Front ran along a 450 mile line from the Swiss border through the provinces of Northern France and on to the Belgian coast, where Nieuwpoort is located.

The town soon found itself in the thick of the fighting as its position meant that anyone who could break through its defences would find themselves behind the frontline.

Military historian Peter Barton explains, "This is where the Germans tried to break through at the beginning of the war to take the channel ports.

"This is really the forward line of the British Empire. They took these lines and Britain was wide open."

Survivors of the Great War who fought in Nieuwpoort described it as 'hell on earth', having witnessed the near-obliteration of the town in the four years before the war ended in 1918.

Now it is the surface damage being caused by the collapse of the original tunnels which threatens the residents of Nieuwpoort.

Tunnel vision

Geologist Peter Doyle is among the team working to identify the problems in Nieuwpoort.

He believes that the wooden pit props have begun to rot, causing the underground tunnels to collapse and resulting in damage to the house built overhead.

He says, "The men living on the ground surface in the trenches had to live, sleep, eat and ultimately die in these conditions.

Tony Roe with Peter Doyle and team
Geologist Peter Doyle shows Inside Out's Tony Roe the map

"Anybody with a mining background was paid extra money and sent underground," he explains.

"It was a dangerous world."

Peter and the rest of the team have been examining local documents to get to the root of the problem.

He says, "We know that the tunnels were constructed here - what we can do is overlay the pattern of the streets.

"We can see that this house lies directly over the top of one of the tunnels.

"The engineers built these to a standard that would keep them safe during the war, but the timbers are starting to rot.

"I think we are looking at the end of their working life as we're starting to see these collapses taking place."

At the surface

Peter has joined a team from Nottingham Trent University and The Association for Battlefield Archaeology, who have travelled out to Belgium to investigate the problem.

They are trying to chart the maze of tunnels underneath Nieuwpoort in an attempt to pinpoint where any future damage might take place.

But despite their hard work, the local authorities are reluctant to acknowledge the problem, leaving the town's residents in a constant state of worry over the future of their homes.

Rob Evans, of Nottingham Trent University, has met with problems trying to explain the issue to the authorities.

He says, "If you speak to individual people they are actually quite aware that problems do exist and that tunnels may be the cause and that is what the evidence is pointing towards.

"If you start going to politicians and local authorities, they are a lot more hesitant to accept the evidence that the team has produced."

house with structural supports
Some of Nieuwpoort's houses are on the verge of collapse

Local historian Kristof Jacobs agrees.

He believes that the history of the men who dug the famous tunnels should not be ignored.

He says, "You see the archives, these men have lived and died there - that cannot be denied."

But what also cannot be denied is the threat posed by the collapsing tunnels to Nieuwpoort's residents, many of whose houses lie directly above the old tunnels.

The Western Front runs for hundreds of miles through towns and cities right across Europe, so could this hidden legacy pose a threat to other towns?

There may only be a few cracks on the surface today, but of what the future holds, no-one can be sure.

See also ...

Inside Out: East Midlands
More great stories

On the rest of Inside Out
Images of the Great War - Gallery

BBC History - Life in the Trenches
BBC History - The Great War

On the rest of the web
The Archaeology of the Western Front

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