A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Letter from Belgium
Volume 62 Number 4, July/August 2009
A "vampire" tunnel exposes how World War I soldiers lived and died
On a chilly day in November, I stand at the edge of a deep hole, looking down at a very long, mud-slick 90-year-old ladder. Wearing borrowed rubber boots and waterproof overalls, I descend, holding the ladder tightly and doing my best not to look down. At the bottom, I hop off into another world--a cold, dark, wet shaft filled with the thunderous roar of ventilator fans. Water constantly drips from the rusting metal ceiling.
The 40-foot-deep shaft leads to a tunnel wide enough for two people to stand side-by-side. It is lighted with bare bulbs like a mine. Edging forward about 10 feet--the muddy water around my feet makes it hard to judge where to step--I pass a steep wooden staircase on my right, ascending to a now-collapsed upper tunnel. I pass the staircase to a 22-foot-long lower tunnel that widens into a chamber whose ceiling is crisscrossed with beams and supported by nine stout timber posts.
This World War I shelter, called a dugout, was built by British soldiers in 1918 and then suddenly abandoned when their commanders decided to pull troops out of the area to fight elsewhere along the front lines. For the archaeologists exploring it now, the dugout provides a fresh look at how the British and their allies fought an underground war against Germany on the Western Front.
This blustery November weekend may be the last time anyone ever visits this dugout. The longer its wood and steel supports are exposed to oxygen--the true culprit when it comes to rust and rot--the faster it will degrade and collapse. Already, there's a slick red coating on the sheets of corrugated iron that line the dirt walls. As I struggle to get my bearings, there's a splash behind me. Johan Vandewalle--a stocky Belgian with smoker's teeth and a gray mustache--drops down into the tunnel behind me. Wearing a yellow hard hat and a filthy white cable-knit sweater, the former miner is my guide under the earth and the mastermind behind the project to excavate the dugout. Though he had handed me a hard hat at the top of the shaft, I get the feeling he's more worried about the preservation of the dugout than my head. Shining his flashlight into the corners of the timber-reinforced chamber, he points out fat white candles lying on a narrow ledge, next to an empty tin that once held a ration of corned beef. Down here Vandewalle exudes a possessive air of authority. "There are spare candles, waiting to be used, 90 years later," he says. "So please don't touch them."
Andrew Curry is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.Share