Discovered in the mud: The intact battlefield of Passchendaele and a grim harvest of bones

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The Independent Online

A maze of nearly intact trenches covering the area of half a football field has emerged from the mud of the First World War battlefields in Flanders after 86 years.

A maze of nearly intact trenches covering the area of half a football field has emerged from the mud of the First World War battlefields in Flanders after 86 years.

The discovery, together with that of the bodies of seven soldiers, provoked calls from British politicians and local historians yesterday for the Belgian government to reconsider plans to build a motorway over the site. They said the trenches - where chemical weapons were used for the first time and at the starting point for one of the bloodiest battles in history - should be preserved as a reminder for future generations.

At first glance, the mournful, featureless and mud-brown archeological dig, just northeast of Ypres in Belgium, could itself be a Great War battlefield. Out of the raw, moist earth, largely undisturbed since the third battle of Ypres in 1917, there have emerged seven bodies, an immense treasury of war-time artefacts and the most complete pattern of preserved 1914-18 trenches to be found for many years.

A mound of earth on one corner of the site was heaped with poppies by British and Belgian visitors yesterday to mark Remembrance Day and to record the discovery at the spot last week of the body of an unidentified, but probably British, soldier of the Great War. Only the lower half of his skeleton was found. Another of the bodies discovered near the trenches several weeks ago has been provisionally identified as that of a member of the 5th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers in his twenties.

The unearthing of the bodies of First World War soldiers, in this case six British and one French, is not unusual. About 60 bodies are uncovered each year on the 1914-18 battlefields in France and Belgium - an annual "harvest of bones".

The significance of the site near Pilkem Ridge, north of Ypres, is the discovery of such a large area of shallow, but otherwise intact, trenches, which criss-cross the ground like a maze of sunken garden paths, no more than three feet deep at their lowest point. In places, the duck-boarding which covered the bottom of the trenches, and the corrugated iron which reinforced their sides, are still standing. Some of the dugouts - the living quarters in the trench sides - are intact.

The trenches are shallow because of the notorious marshiness of the ground in this area, which was the starting point for the third battle of Ypres in 1917, better known as the battle of Passchendaele. A punctured canal and broken land-drains turned the gently undulating Flanders landscape into a quagmire in which 70,000 British and Commonwealth and German soldiers died.

The fortifications are believed to have been constructed in 1915 after British troops fled to Pilkem Ridge from the first gas attack in military history during the second battle of Ypres. Originally, the trenches would have extended above ground level with parapets of sandbags and barbed wire.

Within and near the trenches, archeologists have found what they describe enough artifacts to fill a "shipping container", ranging from ammunition and guns to rum bottles, kettles and mess cans.

The maze of trenches represents a major historical find, according to Marc Dewilde, 49, head of the archeological team which has uncovered the site progressively over the last six months. "We have found what we predicted we would find," he told The Independent yesterday. "Here, just under the surface of the ground, only a few tens of centimetres down, there is a place where the battlefield of the Ypres salient, one of the most terrible battlefields of the war, remains virtually intact."

Mr Dewilde and his team have been given permission by the Belgian government to excavate nine sites in the path of a projected extension of the A19 motorway from the Lille area to the Belgian coast. Only four of them have been excavated so far.

The Belgian government and the Flanders regional government must decide next year whether to go ahead with the extension of the motorway. The A19 project has been criticised by British veterans' groups and local pressure groups in Ypres.

"Surely they cannot go ahead now. It would be a great desecration, not only of the memory of what happened here but also of an important historical site," one local historian, who asked not be named, said yesterday. "It would be possible, with a detour of one and a half kilometres at most, to take the motorway in another direction and preserve this site for the generations to come."

Between 1914 and 1918, and especially in 1917, Ypres, known to the British troops as "Wipers", entered the lexicon as term synonymous with slaughter and futility, alongside names like Verdun and the Somme. Over 55,000 of the British soldiers who died in the Ypres area have no known grave and their names are carved on the Menen gate on the edge of the town.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester, the Labour peer who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary War Graves and Battlefield Heritage Group, visited the archeological dig a few weeks ago.

"It is quite astounding how well preserved the trenches are in places," he said yesterday. "The archeological excavations have uncovered far more than anyone could have imagined. The Belgian authorities are due great credit for allowing the digs to go ahead but they must now consider very carefully whether it is appropriate to build a motorway over this ground."

Piet Chielens, head of the much-praised In Flanders' Fields Museum in Ypres, said he was unable to comment on the politics of the motorway decision but that this was a "find of immense importance".

He added: "As the years go by, and the last living memories of this war vanish, the new generations are going to need much more than we do in the way of physical remains and artefacts to help to them to grasp what happened here. That is the importance of a find like this."

Belgian officials have argued that similar trench patterns could be found by excavating elsewhere, out of the path of the motorway, but local historians say this is not necessarily true. "This is the last part of the main British trench fortifications in the Ypres salient which has not been covered over by housing or other roads," a local historian said. "This is our last chance to show people what the battlefield really looked like."

There were five great battle in the Ypres area in the 1914-18 war. The trenches discovered near Pilkem are believed to have been built by the British Army in 1915 after they were pushed back by a German gas attack.

The trenches remained the front line for British and Commonwealth troops until 31 July 1917 when 12,000 soldiers died in one day on Pilkem Ridge in the first attack of the battle which ended in the mud in the village of Passchendaele, five miles to the east, just over four months later. Over 35,000 British soldiers and 35,000 Germans died in the battle for Passchendaele - a failed attempt to break through the German lines and reach Bruges and Brussels, forcing an early end to the war.

The identity of the Northumberland Fusilier whose body was found near the trenches several weeks ago has been provisionally identified. No announcement will be made until checks are completed and any surviving family is traced.

The slaughter at Ypres

¿ There were major battles at Ypres in 1914, 1915 and in 1917, which culminated in the Battle of Passchendaele in November. There were two further smaller offensives before the Armistice.

¿ The trenches at Pilkem Ridge were in use between the second battle of Ypres and the opening assault of the third, on 31 July 1917.

¿ The second battle was the only major attack launched by the Germans on the Western Front in 1915 and marked the first use of gas there, when the Germans released 168 tons of chlorine in April.

¿ The offensive continued until the end of May 1915 and included many more gas attacks. Around 59,000 British, 10,000 French and 35,000 Germans died.

¿ The third battle began with a lengthy Allied bombardment which gave the Germans time to prepare for the attack. Drainage systems were damaged and the battleground was cratered. About 12,000 men died at Pilkem Ridge on 31 July.

¿ As the offensive continued, conditions were made worse by the heaviest rains for 30 years, which turned the area into a sea of mud by the end of the summer. Germans used mustard gas in their defence.

¿ The third battle caused 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties. Many drowned in the mud.

¿ Military historians consider the offensive planned by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig to be largely a failure. The assault advanced the Allied lines by just five miles.