Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Disaster at Tavennes Tunnel

Tavennes Tunnel (Probably Just After the War)

Tavennes railway tunnel, located near Fort Vaux, stretched 1.170 meters from the battlefront to the French rear areas and was reached by a narrow cutting. This gave cover to the French troops approaching the front line, a degree of cover to the troops and ,storage for vast amounts of ammunition and fuel. 

It was a dark, utterly fetid existence, not helped by the absence of any sanitary facilities except for the track drainage ditches which ran beside the useless rails and which rapidly became stagnant. It was not a good place to spend time, but at least it was cover from shellfire for some three thousand men.

On 4 September, around 9:15 p.m., a supply train of mules carrying ammunition and supplies, arrived at the tunnel's west side (facing the French). The load carried by one of the mules caught fire for an unknown reason. The frightened animal entered the tunnel, setting fire to gas cans for the generator placed at the entrance. With the draft, the fire reached the ammunition stocks, which exploded. The explosion was felt throughout the region, and the Germans bombarded the entrance to block the French troops inside the tunnel. However, the other exit (facing the German line) was obscured and French soldiers managed to escape in that direction. 

Tavennes Tunnel Today 
Right Tube Added in 1936

The fire burned for days. Of an estimated 3,000 men in the tunnel, about 500 to 700 perished.    Censorship kept the news of the disaster from the public until after the war.


  1. The most chilling sentence I've read all day: "the Germans bombarded the entrance to block the French troops inside the tunnel".

    I know it's war, and an extremely harsh one, where standards of humanity were notoriously flexible. Still.

  2. I wonder if this tragedy may have been, partially at least, an inspiration for Bertrand Tavernier's fine 1989 film "Life and Nothing But."