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Legacy of War Volume 54 Number 2, March/April 2001
by Kristin M. Romey

A considerable number of towns in northwestern Belgium may be sitting atop a "time bomb," World War I tunnels that may be responsible for the structural failure of buildings in Nieuwpoort, Flanders, leading to the evacuation of some families.

University of Greenwich geoscientist Peter Doyle, who is researching the problem along with geological engineers from Nottingham Trent University and members of the Association for Battlefield Archaeology in Flanders, a system of tunnels built by the Allies in 1917 to protect their troops from shelling now threatens large areas within the town and surrounding areas with collapse. The approximately 12-mile-long system of tunnels and chambers was hollowed out of the coastal sand 5 to 25 feet beneath the town and was accessed by over 200 staircases and 2,000 shafts. Some of the chambers housed staff offices while others were large enough to shelter more than 1,000 men.

The tunnels were buried under up to ten feet of rubble when Nieuwpoort, the site of the third Battle of Ypres, was leveled and rebuilt after the war. They were not filled in because nobody was aware of them at the time, according to Peter Barton of the Association for Battlefield Archaeology in Flanders.

Timbers that shored up the walls of the underground system have been decaying and are now beginning to give way, leading to the collapse of buildings constructed above them. A more complete survey with ground-penetrating radar is planned that will determine the full extent of the problem. One remedy, albeit extremely expensive, may be to fill in the tunnels.

The researchers believe that the problem affects towns along much of the former Western Front. Mike Rosenbaum of the Geohazards Research Group at Nottingham Trent University is less than optimistic. "It may be," he says, "that we are seeing the start of a major problem: the tip of an iceberg."

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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