Battlefield Archaeology: Unearthing the WW1 “Pompeii” at Messines Ridge

Interviews, WW1

By Pierre Kosmidis

Messines - German tunnel - copyright ADEDE
Messines – German tunnel – copyright ADEDE

Photos by Simon Verdegem/Höhe 80 – Project Whitesheet 2018

Over 3,2 million men died in the battles fought in the Western Front during World War 1 and more than 8,4 million wounded soldiers lived to tell the tale of the first industrial-scale killing machine, known as the Great War.

Today, vast cemeteries are keeping alive the memory of the fallen and every now and then new discoveries shed light on the “Hell on Earth”, the inhumane trench warfare that cost the lives of millions of young men.

Ypres - Livens projectors, a simple mortar-like weapon that could throw large drums filled with flammable or toxic chemicals - copyright VEC
Ypres – Livens projectors, a simple mortar-like weapon that could throw large drums filled with flammable or toxic chemicals – copyright VEC

Höhe 80 – Project Whitesheet 2018, is important, not only because it gives new insights on the atrocity of World War 1, but also because it is done in a scientific manner, with a respectful approach, following all archaeological protocols, thus safeguarding each and every item found and preserving the memory of the fallen and of the men who survived the toughest ordeal of their lives.

As opposed to looting and war grave digging, a lucrative business that destroys valuable evidence, Höhe 80 – Project Whitesheet 2018 aims at telling the story as it unfolded in the trenches, in an accessible manner, giving everyone the opportunity to learn about World War 1 and safeguarding all artifacts found in their context.

In that aspect, www.ww2wrecks.com asked SIMON VERDEGEM – HEAD ARCHAEOLOGIST of the project to tell more about this important archaeological operation, which will unearth a WW1 “Pompeii”.

The Project's official website is http://hill80.com/
The Project’s official website is http://hill80.com/ 

What is your background in archaeology?

I have always been interested in military history, especially the First World War, and that is why I started studying History first.

Messines - Floor collapsed tunnel - copyright ADEDE
Messines – Floor collapsed tunnel – copyright ADEDE

But after graduating it didn’t feel like I was on the right track, that this was how I wanted to study military history.

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So I decided to study Archaeology too in an attempt to work my way into First World War archaeology. My first experience in the field as a student was at an excavation on Pilckem Ridge where we excavated German and British trenches. This research would later become the subject of my dissertation.

British trench at Ypres, copyright VEC
British trench at Ypres, copyright VEC

After graduating I started working as an archaeologist, gaining experience while excavating all over Flanders, researching all periods (Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman Period, Middle Ages).

Bikschote - excavation - copyright THV MRG
Bikschote – excavation – copyright THV MRG

The first big World War 1 dig I directed was at Messines where we found amazing and well preserved relics. The excavation, of which a documentary was made for Channel 4, launched my career as a battlefield archaeologist and in the following years I excavated and directed digs of varying sizes at First World War sites in the Ypres Salient and the Yser Front.

Messines - German tunnels - copyright ADEDE
Messines – German tunnels – copyright ADEDE

Biggest were the pipeline excavations (2014-2016) where we researched 24km which resulted in 87 excavations which were conducted by a team of more than 30 archaeologists.

Check the official website at http://hill80.com/
Check the official website at http://hill80.com/

How did you start looking in WW1 battlefields and why?

Ever since I visited the Ypres Salient with High School I was intrigued by the area and its history. I started reading about it and this was one of the reasons why I started studying History at University. But luckily I couldn’t find what I was looking for at that time so that I kept on searching until I saw a documentary on FWW archaeology.

Messines - Excavation action - copyright ADEDE
Messines – Excavation action – copyright ADEDE

I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do and everything I did since that moment was with that goal only, becoming a First World War archaeologist. And I think I can say that I succeeded. 

Bikschote - German bunker frontline - copyright THV MRG
Bikschote – German bunker frontline – copyright THV MRG

WW1 has been the first “industrial-scale” warfare; what is the importance of finding out more about the warfare of that period and personal stories and experiences that come to light?

This is actually a really good question, because, in my opinion, this is the power of archaeology.

The ability of bringing the small and personal stories to light.

Of course archaeology of the Great War also contributes to our understanding of trench warfare; evolution of trench construction, improvisation because of local terrain conditions, unknown or early structures that never have been mapped, etc.

Bikschote - German trench 2nd line - copyright THV MRG
Bikschote – German trench 2nd line – copyright THV MRG

These are all elements that, especially from a scientific point of view, can contribute to the history of the First World War. And I think that it is important to use “contribution” here, because that is how we need to see the relation between archaeology and written history.

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Archaeology is not something to proof written source with nor should we use written sources to proof archaeology. We need to see them as multiple sources that have to be looked at together as a whole.

Together they enrich the story.

Bikschote - German trench 2nd line - copyright THV MRG
Bikschote – German trench 2nd line – copyright THV MRG

How important is it to make a scientific archaeological survey, as opposed to relic hunting?

This is indisputably necessary. From a mere scientific point of view, apart from the moral side of things, relic hunting is disastrous because objects are unearthed without any context. And the context makes half of the (scientific) value of the artefacts. For example a Brodie Helmet uncovered near the Steenbeek in Langemark.

Without a context it is just another helmet left behind or lost on the battlefield. But finding that same helmet during an excavation could tell the story of that helmet.

Fluxys (Steenstraat) Franco-Belgian trench - copyright THV MRG
Fluxys (Steenstraat) Franco-Belgian trench – copyright THV MRG

The archaeological trace wherein the helmet was found could be a fox hole facing the Steenbeek while other artifacts, for example a Guards uniform button, in that trace proof that the fox hole was dug by the Guards Division.

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Now the helmet was lost by a Guard that was facing the enormous obstacle the Steenbeek at the evening of 31st of July 1917 and had no other option than to dig in because the advance stopped.

That makes an enormous difference.

Hill80 Communication trench
Hill80 Communication trench

Tell us a bit about your project, the crowdfunding process and how can anyone help, be it on the field or via crowdfunding?

Höhe 80 – Project Whitesheet is about a fantastic location on the German frontline in the village of Wijtschate.

There the German integrated a mill and its surrounding building into the trench system in an around the town turning that place into a formidable stronghold. Development plans initiated a test trenching campaign in 2015 leading to the discovery of the relics.

Houthulst forest - Minenwerfer position - copyright THV MRG
Houthulst forest – Minenwerfer position – copyright THV MRG

A big part of the terrain hasn’t been ploughed since the war, leaving everything untouched. The results of the test trenches were astonishing and showed a superb preservation. An excavation of the entire area was imminent but at a high cost.

That is why plans were frozen for a while and nothing happened. But I couldn’t get the site out of my head so we started thinking about ways to raise funds. And because archaeology of the First World War touches a lot of people- but hardly ever reaches them- we thought crowdfunding might be the answer.

Langemark - excavation - copyright THV MRG
Langemark – excavation – copyright THV MRG

While asking people to contribute we could in return engage them with our work on different levels. And this is what the whole crowdfunding campaign is about and how we built up the rewards. First of all there will be our website that is open to everybody.

Messines - MG ammo at collection point - copyright ADEDE
Messines – MG ammo at collection point – copyright ADEDE

On that website we will update daily with news on the excavation so that people have the unique opportunity to follow us step by step. Higher levels of rewards are the options to visit the site in group or private and guided by me or another team member.

The highest rewards are for those that want to become an archaeologist for one or more days. These people will become real team members and will be able to work with us on the field.

Höhe 80 – Project Whitesheet 2018 Crowdfunding 

Messines - Ammo storage in tunnels - copyright ADEDE
Messines – Ammo storage in tunnels – copyright ADEDE

In a nutshell, how would you describe the WW1 experience, through your eyes?

It might sound very stereotypical but it must have been hell. As an archaeologist you can get very close to the remains of the war and every excavation there is a find that blows our mind on the destructive power of the industrial warfare.

Unbelievable that men had to survive and withstand in the middle of all that.

Messines - Bunker with Trench - copyright ADEDE
Messines – Bunker with Trench – copyright ADEDE

SIMON VERDEGEM – HEAD ARCHAEOLOGIST 

simon-img-2

Simon is an expert battlefield archaeologist with extensive experience in First World War archaeology in Flanders. He works for Ruben Willaert bvba, the archaeological company that fully supports the project. It was Simon who discovered the site during the test trenching campaign with his team. He will lead the excavations.

Ypres - British 3rd line - copyright VEC
Ypres – British 3rd line – copyright VEC

Simon has always had a genuine interest in history in general, but visiting the Ypres Salient in High School had a big impact on him.

The First World War became his biggest interest and he wanted to research this subject in his professional life.

Messines - German bunker with trench - copyright ADEDE
Messines – German bunker with trench – copyright ADEDE

He first finished his Masters in History followed by a Masters in Archaeology (thesis: Caesar’s Nose excavation) at Ghent University. Starting work as an archaeologist in 2008, he gained experience while excavating all over Flanders, researching all periods (Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman Period, Middle Ages).

Messines - German tunnels - copyright ADEDE
Messines – German tunnels – copyright ADEDE

The first big World War 1 dig he directed was at Messines where his team found amazing and well preserved relics. The excavation, of which a documentary was made for Channel4, launched his career as a battlefield archaeologist and in the following years he excavated and directed digs of varying sizes at First World War sites in the Ypres Salient and the Yser Front.

Biggest were the pipeline excavations (2014-2016) where the team researched 24km which resulted in 87 excavations which were conducted by a team of more than 30 archaeologists.

Messines - tools in tunnel - copyright ADEDE
Messines – tools in tunnel – copyright ADEDE

Simon is also one of the organisers of an annual conference on Conflict Archaeology and is working on an exhibition on FWW archaeology in the IFFM (feb-jun 2018).

In his spare time he also excavates World War 2 crash sites in cooperation with BAHAAT and Plane Hunters Recovery Team.

Messines - German support trench - copyright ADEDE
Messines – German support trench – copyright ADEDE