It remained buried under a village for over a century. But now, a system of tunnels dating from the Battle of Messines has been uncovered in Belgium, along with an array of artefacts within.

The bunker, under the village of Wijtschate in Flanders, is more than 20 feet underground and is believed to have accommodated up to 300 troops.

The remains of a
staircase leading to the bunker
at Wijtschate. The site dates from
the Battle of Messines of 1917
The remains of a staircase leading to the bunker at Wijtschate. The site dates from the Battle of Messines of 1917. Image: Facebook / Photography to remember WWOne / Nick Mol.

The Battle of Messines took place in June 1917 and saw Allied troops attack German fortifications on a ridge near the city of Ypres. After a week of fighting, the Germans were defeated (although they retook the ridge the following year). Over 59,000 soldiers were killed.

The network of tunnels was initially uncovered by workmen installing a new sewage system. Archaeologists from the Flemish Heritage Agency teamed up with the University of Ghent to study it.

They have uncovered seven different entrances, as well as the remains of hundreds of missing soldiers.

Commenting on the recent discovery, Robin Schaefer, a German military historian and advisor to the Flemish Heritage Agency, said that it was one of the largest underground structures ever found in Flanders.

‘This is an enormous underground shelter that, according to German accounts from the period, accommodate up to 300 men – a company in size.’

Several hundred artefacts were found within the bunker, including bottles and munitions.  Images: Facebook / Photography to remember WWOne / Nick Mol.
Artefacts were found within the bunker, including bottles and munitions. Image: Facebook / Photography to remember WWOne / Nick Mol.

Schaefer added that its depth, with 21 steps leading down to the tunnels, almost certainly made it shell-proof, although otherwise very unpleasant.

‘There would have been very cramped little rooms,’ he said, ‘not comfortable at all and very oppressive with low ceilings.’

What has made the discovery even more tantalising is the 200 military and personal artefacts found inside the bunker, such as a bayonet, wire cutters, and bottles – all of which are over a century old. And while some of the staircase entrances to the site have collapsed, others have been almost perfectly preserved.

For more First World War history and archaeology, you can follow Photography to Remember WWOne on Facebook.

This article was published in the October/November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.




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