Friday, March 30, 2018

Digging Hill 80 - Hazards and Hocum

I try to do my homework before any travel, and my hitch doing WWI archaeology six weeks from now being slightly odder than most of my jaunts, the research is more extensive. 

For instance, a few thoughts on potential hazards....

1. Unexploded ordnance. 

Well, there's gonna be some.  This part of the Western Front had continuous warfare for four long years.  World War I simply defies our ability to comprehend it.  It has been estimated that each square meter of the front got a ton of explosives dropped on it.  And in the Ypres Salient it is even worse.  Given the basic figure of one shell in three being a dud, there are still millions of live rounds buried.  Some were removed in the post war period.  I'm not sure if it is still standard procedure but tractors in this part of the world used to have armor plating on the the bottom.

We will have a bomb disposal team on site full time.  I suspect there will be limited use of indiscriminate tools like the pick axe and mattock.   

2. Poison gas.

You don't want to clobber high explosive shells, but to be honest they turn up all the time and cause fewer problems than you'd expect.  Farmers just pile them by the road side each spring and the army comes along to pick them up.   Gas shells are another matter.  They usually have distinctive markings.  Giving it a good shake to see if it sloshes would be a very bad idea.  If one is found a special unit from the Belgian army turns up.  They take it away to a facility they have which works full time to neutralize gas shells.  I'm told they have great job security, given their deliberate pace and the back log of nasties they already have, it will take three decades to deal with the poison gas.... unrealistically assuming no more turn up.

I've seen video of a similar salvage dig a few miles away.  The first thing that is done every morning is to put up the "gas flag".  It tells you which way the wind is blowing, which under certain unlikely circumstances might be handy info.

3. Gigantic, hill destroying mines. 

The nature of trench warfare is static.  Modern weaponry favored the defense so much that a breakthrough attack was in general impossible.  Not that this reality did not get tested again, and again, and again by generals convinced that this time for sure their troops could wade through knee deep mud, through the multiple belts of barbed wire, through the artillery barrage and the fire of massed machine guns. In the Ypres Salient alone perhaps 500,000 men died in this fashion.  

It did eventually encourage a bit of innovation.  

One thing both sides did was dig deep tunnels under enemy lines, fill up galleries with many tons of high explosives then fire them off just before an attack.  Just south and west of where I will be digging is Messine Ridge, or what is left of it.  In 1917 the British set off a series of mines in one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever touched off by mankind.  It was heard in London.

10,000 German soldiers died instantly when the 19 mines went off.   In true First War fashion this caused a breakthrough....of about two miles.

Four mines were not detonated.  One went off in 1956, making a big bang but not hurting anyone.  Stories that the other three could go at any time are supposedly just made up to alarm the tourists.   I'll be several miles away from them in any case.  The one on the edge of the village I'll be working in went off right on schedule leaving a big hole in the ground..

This is from a site called WW1battlefields, with a UK orientation.  It gives a good overview of action in this part of the Ypres salient.  In the distance beyond the big crater you can see the steeple of the village church in Wytschaete.  That's where our excavation will be happening.  Had the front lines been a mile further over in 1917 there would be nothing left to excavate.

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