Did Tommies' trenches sink plucky little Belgian town?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

They fought for king and country, and endured the unendurable, but now a row has broken out over what British soldiers did - or didn't do - at a small town in Belgium more than 80 years ago.

They fought for king and country, and endured the unendurable, but now a row has broken out over what British soldiers did - or didn't do - at a small town in Belgium more than 80 years ago.

During the First World War, Nieuwpoort, in common with dozens of other towns and villages in Flanders, was obliterated. After the Armistice it was rebuilt, and life carried on as normal. Until now.

Recently, residents noticed cracks in some houses. Soon, more buildings began to show signs of subsidence. Next, a whole street appeared to have been blighted. The finger of suspicion pointed at the local water company, and a court case ensued.

All this would perhaps have been a humdrum affair had it not been for the controversial involvement of a team of British military historians and academics in the matter of Belgium's "sinking" town.

The British team - which includes Professor Peter Doyle of Greenwich University's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Peter Barton of the Association for Battlefield Archaeology in Flanders, and Professor Mike Rosenbaum, of the Geohazards Research Group, Nottingham Trent University - is claiming that the town's problem is far more serious than appears, with "many hundreds" of buildings at risk.

The source of the problem, they maintain, is a system of tunnels dug under and around the town by British troops and their allies during the First World War, a network that was forgotten for generations, but which the team claims it has now brought to light after studying contemporary military maps, and carrying out geological research.

Once again, Britons come to the rescue of plucky little Belgium. Well, maybe. For prominent Belgian historians are adamant that the British have got it badly wrong. There are, they say, no such tunnels.

"There is a big difference between Nieuwpoort and the Somme," says the country's senior First World War academic, Professor Luc De Vos, of the Belgian Royal Military Academy. "With the land at Ypres or the Somme, you could have big tunnels 50ft underground. But at Nieuwpoort, so close to the sea, the water is only one foot under the soil - you could not build tunnels or trenches there. I was born in the area, I lived there.

"In the war, soil was piled up there to make trenches, and they used sandbags. The British have been basing their theory on maps of trenches, and yes there are trenches on the maps - but they were above ground."

From 1914 to 1918, Nieuwpoort, just inland from the Channel coast, stood at the northern tip of the system of trench lines that extended for more than 400 miles through Belgium and France to Switzerland.

"Sinking" land throughout Flanders has been a frequent occurrence, as wartime dug-outs and tunnels give way. Buildings and farm animals have indeed suddenly "disappeared" into massive holes in the ground, and in one case between the wars, a housemaid "vanished" into a hole that had opened up in the kitchen floor while she was cooking lunch.

In the manner of a secret wartime operation, the British team is resolutely refusing to discuss the matter, or even confirm the identity of the "sinking" town, until they hold a press conference at Greenwich University on Tuesday. However, a spokesman for the team told the Independent on Sunday: "We're pretty sure of our facts. A large amount of research has been undertaken into this, with documents from around the world. The scale and concentration of the tunnels and mining there is unique."

But some Belgians aren't at all happy. "These people say they have proof. If it is Nieuwpoort, then they should tell the people in Nieuwpoort, not in London," says historian Piet Chielens, curator of the In Flanders Fields museum at Ypres.

Mr Chielens has his own theory. "From 1919, repair of the land around the whole battle area was hastily done, first by the British Army, then by the Belgian government, and local people did their own repairs too.

"The British Army wanted to demobilise quickly, so they used the Chinese Labour Corps to do much of this work, and German prisoners too. None of them did a thorough job."

Comments