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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Beneath the Killing Fields
Reviewed by Ron Drees

Beneath the Killing Fields: 
Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front

by Matthew Leonard
Pen and Sword, 2017

Tunnel Entrance
Butte de Vauquois
When I first received this book I noticed that it was short at 170 pages; heavy and expensive at $40; printed on glossy paper; and profusely illustrated with photographs of craters, tunnels, monuments, and soldiers plus a few maps. Not the usual Great War volume as it doesn't concentrate on a specific battle but describes how subterranean activities affected men and how they were used to wage war. The author has a PhD in archaeology and has contributed extensively to the field of modern conflict archaeology, a new and interdisciplinary approach to the study of post-1900 conflicts. This approach uses every kind of information available, from graffiti and artwork to leftover armaments and gas curtains, in order to understand underground conflict.

The book begins with a glossary, vital to readers not familiar with camouflets, kinaesthesia, and souterraine. The first chapter is an overview of underground warfare from Alexander the Great through the American Civil War and the tunneling by Japanese defenders on many Pacific islands. Vietnam and drug smuggling tunnels receive notice and, more important, how the military coped with tunnels. During the Great War, hundreds of troops were staged underground to attack the enemy. The author stated in an email to me that the yardage of tunneling almost equaled the yardage of trenches. What varied between the combatants was the approach to tunneling.

Tunnelers Quarters
Butte de Vauquois
The Germans viewed tunneling and the construction of dugouts as a defensive matter so that their troops could survive shelling and emerge to defeat Allied attackers as they did in the battle of the Somme. The furnishings of destroyed villages outfitted German dugouts comfortably while the Allies did not want their men to be comfortable so as to encourage them to evict the Germans from France. The Allies considered underground work useful for offensive purposes. Before the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge, hundreds of troops had to wait in cramped quarters with no sanitary facilities except their immediate position. The stench, severely cramped quarters, and pre-battle tension did nothing for morale.

One chapter is devoted to the senses—how each can be used underground to compensate for vision which no longer functions in the dark. When one side would break into the tunnel of the other, soldiers would identify friend from foe by feeling for epaulets on German shoulders in the dark. Then hand-to-hand combat would break out in spaces too small for standing. Yet the tunnelers left a human quality behind through graffiti, instructions on walls to suppress conversation, and even a few works of art.

Dr. Leonard also discusses the beginning of underground archaeology, studying a mine left underground decades earlier that had been defused. The group took the name Durand from a mine in the Vimy Ridge area and remained together to study other tunnels, enhancing knowledge about the skills and innovation necessary to wage war underground. Throughout the book are color photographs of the Durand group working underground, and the difficulties are obvious: very tight quarters, uneven surfaces, knee-deep water, leftover grenades from both sides, and collapses in farm fields from heavy rainfall. One member of the group died when the chalk overhead collapsed.

There is more to this book than the pain of digging tunnels; we also get descriptions of disastrous battles, monuments listing the missing by the tens of thousands, illustrations of the ossuary and the interdisciplinary approach of archaeology and anthropology. The latter quality makes this book particularly worthwhile as the reader learns about an aspect of the war previously untouched: the extent of tunneling, the learning curve of using tunnels to advantage, and the various effects of them upon soldiers including the nerve-wracking silence required to prevent discovery by the enemy digging—and listening—just a few feet away.

Read Beneath the Killing Fields to develop a very different perspective of the war, how it was fought, and its effects upon the combatants. The war was even more wretched than we thought.

Ron Drees


  1. Sounds interesting, thanks for the review.

  2. As usual one of your best overviews. I look forward to encountering it on the sale table in the future. cheers

  3. An excellent novel, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, involves a lot of the tunneling war. I highly recommend it to our readers. I think it was made into a TV series later.
    Thanks for a great review, Ron.