Sunday, February 12, 2012

In the trenches

German soldiers of the 6th Company, 94th Reserve Infantry Regiment hunkered down in an underground shelter on the Western Front in the Alsace region of France during World War I. Their basic needs were met - they had wood stoves for heat, telephone connections, furniture, electricity, rudimentary plumbing, and even a goat to provide fresh milk - but they had no peace of mind. The soldiers had taken refuge in the trench (which was 125m long and up to 6m deep) on March 18, 1918. That morning, the German artillery had pounded the front lines with gas shells and by early afternoon the French were responding. The 1.1m x 1.7m tunnel was hit 3 times and then, shortly after noon, collapsed at its weakest point. When the Germans attempted a rescue under cover of darkness, they found 2 survivors among the 34 who were trapped by the cave-in, but both later died. They removed 13 of the casualties, but were unable to continue because of continued collapse and continuing combat. It was not until Nov. 2011 that the bodies of the 21 remaining soldiers were recovered. Archaeologist Michael Landolt describes, "It's a bit like Pompeii. Everything collapsed in seconds and is just the way it was at the time. Here, as in Pompeii, we found the bodies as they were at the moment of their death. Some of the men were found in sitting positions on a bench, others lying down. One was projected down a flight of wooden stairs and was found in a fetal position." Landolt is leading the team that began excavating the trench (2nd and 4th images) after it was discovered while a road was being built. The Interdepartmental Centre of Archaeology Rhinelander (PAIR) archaeologists are finding well-preserved personal effects including boots, helmets (1st image), rifles (3rd image), wine bottles, glasses, wallets, pipes, and still-legible newspapers (more photos here). "The collapsed shelter was filled with soil. The items were very well preserved because of the absence of air and light and water. Metal objects were rusty, wood was in good condition....Leather was in good condition as well, still supple," continues Landolt. The bodies - including that of Musketeer Martin Heidrich, 20, Private Harry Bierkamp, 22, and Lieutenant August Hutten, 37 - have been handed over to the German War Graves Commission. Unless surviving relatives request repatriation, they will be interred in the nearby German war cemetery of Illfurth, where their names - known now for nearly a century - were inscribed on a monument 50 years ago.

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