When Archaeologists Dug In Flanders Fields, They Made A Sobering Discovery Beneath The Soil

Image: DigHill80

Archeologists are digging preliminary trenches at a site called Hill 80, close to a Belgian village called Wijtschate. It was the scene of ferocious fighting in World War One – indeed, this piece of land atop the Messines Ridge changed hands no fewer than four times during that conflict. As the researchers cautiously probe the earth, it’s soon clear that they’re at an exceptionally well-preserved WWI site. But they also uncover sobering evidence of the war’s stark brutality.

Image: DigHill80

Today, the village of Wijtschate in the Belgian region of Flanders is a peaceful rural town set in rolling countryside. But in the years of WWI this rural idyll became a bloody battlefield that saw bitter fighting between British and French forces and the German invaders. In fact, the Germans overran Wijtschate early in the war.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Little more than two months after WWI hostilities had started at the end of July 1914, the Germans had cleared out British and French defenders from their positions around Wijtschate. Indeed German forces succeeded in seizing the length of the Messines Ridge, a strategically important height that commanded the surrounding Flanders farmlands.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80

After WWI ended and the slaughter in Flanders was no more, the battlefields around Wijtschate were submerged by soil. As the years went by, what had happened at the Hill 80 site between 1914 and 1918 was consigned to the past, lost in the mists of time. But then, almost 100 years later, developers acquired a piece of land near Wijtschate with the aim of building new housing there. In fact, their planned construction site was right on Hill 80.

Image: DigHill80

At that point, however, Belgian regulations relating to building projects and archeology came into play. When a new construction project is planned, the developer is required to undertake an archeological survey of the proposed area. In this case, an expert called Simon Verdegem was called in to make a preliminary survey of the Hill 80 location.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Chris Deceuninck

And what Verdegem and his team found during the initial investigation in 2015 astonished them. They dug shallow preliminary trenches to assess what might lay hidden under the Flanders turf. It quickly became apparent that they were at the site of a major WWI German defensive position atop Hill 80. And, considering it was a century old, the system of trenches and bunkers looked to be amazingly well preserved.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80

Verdegem was keen to see this site properly excavated. However, the developers were only prepared to spend a limited amount on archeology. This would mean that any investigation would be much less thorough than what Verdegem had in mind. So, if he was to achieve his aim of a full excavation, where was the money to come from?

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Twitter/Simon Verdegem

Verdegem consequently went to see one of the developers. Speaking to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in July 2018, Verdegem remembered his meeting. “I asked him to give me more time, to see if I could find solutions,” he recalled. Thankfully, the developer agreed to freeze construction activity, at least for the moment. Nonetheless, the clock was ticking.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80

And then Verdegem came up with an inspired idea. All kinds of enterprises were resorting to crowd-funding to raise money. Why shouldn’t a WWI archeological dig take the same route to raise funds? It hadn’t been done before, but surely it was worth a try. So Verdegem, partnered by battlefield expert Peter Doyle and German researcher Robin Schäfer, set up a Kickstarter page.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80

The Kickstarter page declared, “With your support, we plan to excavate the site and expose the battlefield in order to increase our understanding of the trench war, and of the men who fought there – before the site is lost to housing development.” But would people really come forward with funds to excavate the Hill 80 site?

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80

Elsewhere on the Kickstarter page, Verdegem emphasized the urgency and significance of the appeal. “Sadly, this unique battlefield remains a prime target for housing and time is running out to save it,” he wrote. “Given the importance and unique character of this site, it requires a full-scale excavation. There should be no half measures.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80

Moreover, the resourceful Verdegem managed to attract some support from British celebrities. Jon Snow is a highly respected TV historian and Al Murray is a popular comedian who happens to have a history degree from Oxford University. And both lent their support to the appeal. Now, the fundraising effort began to gain momentum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80

Once all the contributions were added up, in fact, the appeal had raised more than $200,000, well in excess of its target of some $160,000. Close to 3,000 people had chipped in with pledges large and small. And the appeal had brought in funds in other ways as well, including everything from offering opportunities to be an archeologist at Hill 80 to selling T-shirts.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80

So the Hill 80 site was saved and the project could go ahead, which it indeed did in April 2018. What was probably the first crowd-funding appeal for an archeology project had been a great success. And shortly we’ll explore in detail what the excavation revealed, including some shocking evidence of the slaughter of trench-warfare. But first let’s find out more about what actually happened at the bitterly contested Hill 80 during WWI.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80

Before the horror of WWI intruded in 1914, the land around Wijtschate and along the Massine Ridge where Hill 80 is located was peaceful farmland. Indeed, a wooden-built mill stood there. But that was all to change when the British and French established defensive positions along the Messines Ridge. The Germans attacked on November 2, 1914.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Tom Bruelemans

After a few days of bitter combat, the German soldiers dislodged the British and French, securing the Messines Ridge including the position of Hill 80 at Wijtschate. Much of the defense around Wijtschate, which British soldiers called “Whitesheet,” had fallen to the 1st London Scottish regiment that had only just come to the front.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

On 31 October, the 1st London Scottish was sent to support the 4th Cavalry Brigade, which was holding the line around Wijtschate. The Scots set up on the height of the ridge under heavy fire. They held on against repeated German attacks through the night but eventually, after close-quarter combat, they were forced back at the cost of some 400 dead and wounded.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

The Germans now held the strategic heights of the Messines Ridge at Wijtschate, which afforded them uninterrupted views across enemy lines. This part of the Western Front was to remain more or less static for the next two-and-a-half years. That interval allowed the Germans to build an elaborate system of trenches and underground bunkers. And from 1916 the British were already planning to seize back the Messines Ridge and Hill 80.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Daniel Mayer/Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

The first part of the preparations to retake Wijtschate involved a sophisticated mine operation. Sappers dug tunnels through the Flanders clay all the way to the German positions, burrowing their way at a depth of around 100 feet below the surface. The work was tough, with the terrain including various water tables. Miners from Canada, New Zealand and Australia as well as those from Britain toiled beneath the surface.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Chris Deceuninck

Once the tunnels, which extended for well over three miles, had reached their intended destinations, 26 mines were laid beneath the German defensive positions. These contained explosives with a combined weight in excess of 450 tons. With all of the preparations below ground complete, the artillery launched a massive assault on the German positions on May 21, 1917.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

By the time the British infantry attack started on June 7, the Germans had been pummeled by the combined forces 300 heavy mortars and more than 2,000 guns. In his 1921 book, The Press and the General Staff, Neville Lytton quoted the words of one of the commanders of the attack on Messines, General Sir Charles Harington.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

Harington observed, “Gentlemen, I don’t know whether we are going to make history tomorrow, but at any rate we shall change geography.” He was referring to the likely impact of the explosives beneath the German lines. Twenty minutes after the artillery barrage had ceased, engineers detonated 19 of the massive mines at 3:10 a.m.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

When those mines detonated, the explosion was probably the biggest the world had ever seen. The noise of the blast, which obliterated the top of the hill, was said to have been heard by British Prime Minister Lloyd George in his official London residence. In fact, there were even reports that it was audible in the Irish city of Dublin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

A reported 10,000 Germans died due to the devastating force of the mines that exploded beneath them. Ground troops now attacked the remnants of the stunned German forces. And more artillery shells as well as poison gas projectiles rained down on the German trenches just ahead of the advancing British and colonial infantrymen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

The fortified German position at Wijtschate, which lay near the center of the line of attack, had been severely damaged by the artillery bombardment that preceded the infantry assault. It was left to the Irishmen of a couple of 16th Division battalions to seize Wytschaete village. They soon overwhelmed what was left of the shattered German defenses.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

Much of the history of WWI’s Western Front is a tale of poor leadership and fruitless assaults gaining tiny amounts of ground. By those standards, the assault on the Massine Ridge was a great success. The operation had achieved its goals in around half a day and the Messines Ridge was secured, its commanding heights denied to the German forces that had occupied them for nearly three years.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

The fighting wasn’t over yet, however. The Germans mounted a counter-attack the day after the British seizure of the Massine Ridge, in fact, although they were successfully resisted. Smaller German sorties continued until the middle of June but came to nothing. It was time to tally up the casualties on each side. Unusually for a WWI attack, the defenders had come off worse. German losses stood at some 25,000. The corresponding British figure was around 17,000.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80

Moreover, the Germans later returned to what little was left of Wijtschate about a year later. In the German Army’s major spring offensive of April 1918, it succeeded in wresting back control of the village. It was September before the British managed to re-take the village for the final time. And at that point, the end of WWI was just weeks away.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

So as we’ve seen, Wijtschate had seen a series of intensive battles. But it had also been a site occupied for nearly three uninterrupted years by the Germans, allowing them to build an extensive defensive fortress there. And those two factors made it a tempting location for archeology. Indeed, this was something that Simon Verdegem had made clear on the Höhe (Hill) 80 Project website.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

On the website, Verdegem explained, “As a site that was under threat from development, archaeology was necessary, but its unusual significance was identified by preliminary research which its uniqueness, and of the extraordinary preservation of its buried archaeological relics.” In fact, the site has been described as “the first world war’s Pompeii.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Tom Bruelemans

Hill 80, the archeologists soon discovered, has a complex collection of trenches. In part, this reflected the fact that the site, which covers nearly 3 acres, had changed hands so many times. And one factor in particular contributed greatly to the site’s extraordinary level of preservation. A large proportion of the area hadn’t ever been put under the plough since WWI concluded in 1918.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

Because different defenders and attackers had occupied the site so many times during WWI, while some trenches had clearly belonged to the Germans, others were difficult to identify. A number appeared to have been dug by the French, likely in 1914 at the time of the first battle at Hill 80 when the Germans seized it. The most compelling evidence for this was the presence of French small-arms munitions.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

Other artifacts that emerged from Flanders clay when the researchers carefully dug into it included a water bottle in blue enamel, as issued to British Commonwealth soldiers, and an ammunition pouch. There was also a poignant reminder of the everyday humanity of those who’d fought over Hill 80 in the form of a broken comb, clearly inscribed with the false promise “Unbreakable.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

But other much more disturbing evidence of the events that had unfolded at Hill 80 during WWI also began to appear. Mixed in with a jumble of personal effects and military equipment, both German and British human remains soon began to emerge. On the Hohe 80 website, Verdegem described the impact of such finds.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Tom Bruelemans

“Finding human remains on the First World War battlefields is something that you never get used to,” Verdegem wrote. “In every excavation campaign you know that it can happen; but every time it does, it knocks you off your feet, just for a few seconds. And then you switch back to work mode and make sure you do it right, because every detail counts.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Tom Bruelemans

And the archeologist explained why it was so important to meticulously describe everything that was uncovered during the dig. “The more information you gather, the bigger the chance that the man lying there can have a name again,” Verdegem explained. “It is unfortunate that in many cases this is a lost cause. In such situations, the most you can accomplish is assuring that he gets a proper burial.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Tom Bruelemans

In the end, the archeologists uncovered 110 sets of human remains during their excavations at Hill 80. These were scattered around the 430 shell craters and 1,800 feet or so of trenches that the researchers unearthed. And on October 10, 2019, more than 100 years after these soldiers had lost their lives in the Flanders mud, some of them were laid to rest with full military ceremony.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Tom Bruelemans

At 11:00 a.m. on that autumn day, 13 British and Commonwealth troops were interred at the Wijtschate military burial ground. A large number of mourners looked on. One of the coffins, covered with Britain’s Union Flag, contained the remains of an unknown British soldier. His nationality had been determined from his dentures, which were marked with the word “Leeds.” Another coffin held the remains of a soldier whose nationality remains unknown.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

The final coffin contained the sparse remains of 11 British and Commonwealth soldiers. These men, it’s believed, probably died towards the close of WWI. When the coffins had been lowered into the graves, a bugler sounded the “Last Post.” The day after the British funerals, 73 Germans were given burials in another cemetery. One of those was the sole soldier whose identity had been conclusively confirmed: Private Albert Oehrle. He was just 17 years old when he died.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: DigHill80/Eric Flamand

Speaking to British newspaper The Guardian on the day of the British burials, Simon Verdegem said, “Some [of the remains] were just scattered bones below a few inches of ground. Pompeii is, of course, very different but it gets to this idea of finding everything where it was left… There were wedding rings, wallets, glasses, rosary beads – a lot of them had those – and bibles.”

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT