Monday 15 October 2012

The La Boisselle Project

Overgrown shell hole, La Boisselle, 2011

How many tourist coaches to the battlefields of The Great War have slowed in the village of La Boisselle and turned up the side road to the Lochnagar crater?  How many visitors have been so stunned at the magnitude of Lochnagar that once back on the coach they are lost in thought. But a stunned visitor might have noticed, close to the junction of the side road and the main road, an unkempt piece of land. Uneven, covered with scrub and small trees, you would probably not have given it a second thought as the coach took you to the next must-see site.  Unless your guide pointed it out, that is, and on my visits in the 90’s, no one did...even though one was a fairly eminent historian.
          This unkempt ground at La Boisselle, in the sector known as The Glory Hole, was and is a gem. Few examples remain of virgin Great War battlefield - most of the terrain has been returned to the plough.

Over the years, the scars of conflict have softened. The chalk downlands of the Somme and Ancre valleys, the broad open sweep of their fields, today exude a stillness that belies their history, punctuated only by solitary cemeteries. 

Visit the infamous Somme woods, and you will find another story. Go to Delville Wood for example, and watch the sunlight playing through the trees on the remains of trenches, firing pits and shell holes. 
Delville Wood

Out in the open, most of the land has returned to agriculture. The trenches and the shell holes were backfilled as soon as the farmers could. Nothing remains - apart from the imprints of those trenches and shellholes, which rise up in chalky  ghosts when the crops are harvested. The towns and villages that were flattened have been rebuilt. 

But in La Boisselle, a village whose name resonates through the years for its position on the front line, the fiercest of fighting during July 1916,  the owners of this little piece of land did not level it, or develop it. And now, much has been preserved thanks to an organisation of volunteers called The La Boiselle Study Group

Excavation of L'Ilot, or Granathof - On 28 September 1914 the German advance was halted by French troops at La Boisselle. There was bitter fighting for possession of the civilian cemetery, and for farm buildings on the south-western edge of the village known to the Germans as the Granathof or ‘Shell Farm’ and to the French as the ‘Ilôt’. 

More than preserved - it is being carefully explored, everything recorded, as the site and its treasures are gradually revealed. From the website:
Working alongside landowners, archaeologists, local and regional specialists and authorities, museums, archives and international partners, the project has several objectives: to encourage the long-term preservation of the historic landscape for the benefit of future generations, to introduce fresh generations of archaeologists into the new discipline of First World War battlefield archaeology, to integrate the local population and wider public into the project, and to produce the most complete and multi-faceted examination of a Western Front battleground ever undertaken. 
I was lucky enough to visit in April 2011. Then, the ground was being cleared by a few of the group - all volunteers - a long and painstaking process of removing the bushes, brambles and trees that obscured the main features of the site, especially the mine craters. But the Great War was already returning to the contours in the form of coloured flags planted along the trenchlines - yellow for British, red for German. So close in places you could catch a cold if the enemy sneezed.

From the German lines, 2011 - British trenches lay where the path now leads, where the yellow flags are...
mine craters to left and right.

 Peer between the trees and you could just about see how the land fell away into substantial craters.  If this was No Mans Land, you wouldn’t have had a hope of getting from one side to the other in the dark. But there was another way, and that was to use the ground. To tunnel. There was no small sense of excitement as a corrugated iron sheet was lifted to show me  a small hole in the ground, chalk beneath weeds, one of the just-rediscovered entrances to the tunnel system beneath La Boisselle. 

One of the founder members of The La Boisselle Study Group is military historian Jeremy Banning. In the winter of 2010/11 I had been trying to find a historian who would take me to the battlefields for novel research purposes, and who would help me to follow in the footsteps of The Swansea Pals , the 14th Welsh. The resulting trip with this terrific guide, during which my first visit to the La Boisselle site took place, is written up here
Petrol can - perhaps used to bring water down to the tunnellers. Shell cases used to weigh closed the gas doors.
W adit
       Last week I returned in the company of four other writers, our guide again Jeremy Banning. Our first stop on a tour of the Somme and Arras battlefields was the La Boisselle Project, soon to be closed up at the end of the season. I posted a few photos a day or so back - the excitement of going a short way underground, possibly down the very incline beneath that corrugated iron. The fun of having a BBC News team far below us, recording an impromptu service in remembrance of tunnellers buried in an explosion in November 1915.  Seeing an extraordinary calvaire, found in backfill when the trenches here were excavated - perhaps carved in chalk by Breton tunnellers then embellished by a British sapper’s pencil - looking as if it was both carved and written on yesterday. Fascinating, wonderful and very moving, all of it. 
      One sight that will stay with me, is the brick floor of l'Ilot, or Granathof - the farm so fiercely fought over, which was finally flattened in a mine explosion. The floor is anything but flat. It looks like the sea, as if the ground beneath is still heaving upwards.
Historian Jeremy Banning talks to our group of visiting writers, 2012. Not far from the spot where the photo above, of the  trench lines, was taken. Granathof in the background

But most of that is, if I can use an appropriate metaphor, surface stuff.  Below the surface of  La Boisselle, and the tireless work of this group, is something that seems to chime with the men who fought in the great war. Firstly, a doggedness. The group carried on, even though to begin with there was precious little funding, and they were unsure how long this piece of land would remain available. It’s good to discover that the land is protected now. That financial and practical help is far more in evidence than it was last year - although funds are desperately needed.  Secondly, that team thing, so hard to define: look at the makeup of the group - you will find ex-Royal Marines, an ex-investigator with the Royal Military Police. Academics. Historians. An archaeologist. Researchers. Cinematographer. A pooling of expertise to accomplish an objective. 
       Underpinning everything is a deep respect for the men who went before them.  To ensure that what they did will not disappear into the faceless pages of text books, but be visible. To ensure they will not be forgotten - see for example the story of tunneller Ezekiel Parkes, who still lies entombed, here. One among many.

To keep faith. 


Next post: Why visit the battlefields? Why visit the cemeteries?


  1. God Vanessa, even your write up gives me the shivers. It sounds like a wonderful moment, and I can't wait - really - to read how you translate this to your fiction.

  2. Hi, Vanessa. Thank you for posting this evocative account of your tour and the La Boisselle Project, of which I was previously unaware (but see below).

    Ever since I was a small child I've been fascinated by the World Wars, in particular the first, (sad, perhaps, but true).

    When other kids collected stamps, I collected what is today called memorabilia because the shell cases, badges - and even guns (all handed in at amnesties long ago) - gave me a direct contact with the men and events depicted in those great contemporaneous tomes: The Great War and The War Illustrated, which still grace my shelves alongside Britannica. So you may imagine how emotive I find this new well-conducted and respectful research, and the fresh revelations.

    BTW I was telling Freda last night about your tour, and in describing this post and the pictures of the grassy mounds over the battlefield I experience a genuine 'cold shiver' when I realised I had described this place - or somewhere very like it - and the archaeology, here:

    How bizarre is that?

    Thanks again.


  3. Hi Claire - thanks. It is a wonderful place indeed. Quite a responsibility to pick this up... and very hard to tackle the subject properly. I'm trying!

  4. Hi Oscar - there is nothing 'sad', in my view, in being fascinated by the wars. We live on their coat-tails. You ought to go yourself - walk a field, and see the amount of metal that is still turned up by ploughing. What I've left, that is...