Monday, November 08, 2010

The First World War from Above

After some quite good TV yesterday, including ‘Stand by Me’ which was a faithful adaptation of the excellent Stephen King novella – an uplifting story completely without the supernatural and whose only horror was the kind we all face or will face – and the Antiques Roadshow, we finally got to what we were really looking forward to.

The First World War from Above presented by Fergal Keane ‘examines recently discovered footage and photographs of the conflict. A 48 minute film of the conflict taken by a French airship in the summer of 1919…’. We saw probably ten minutes of that footage and just a few of the photographs, but they were enough. You didn’t need to see a full 48 minutes of towns turned to rubble, and a Moon-like landscape jagged with trenches like cracks in egg-shell. The program was still excellent and still provided a new perspective on that war, for example, German’s giving away the position of their camouflaged barracks by making flower gardens, and paying the price.

The bit that really captured my attention was one aspect of this war I knew nothing about until I read Sebastian Faulks’ book Birdsong: the tunneling war and the planting of mines. During the battle of Messines 19 mines were detonated underneath the Germans. Each of these (I think) consisted of 450 tons of explosive and not only changed the course of the war but the shape of the land. Later pictures showed neat round lakes in the Belgian countryside, surrounded by nice little copses of trees – lakes that are basically graves (like so much of that countryside) but where the only human remains to be found are pieces of bone no bigger than a fingernail.

And on a side note: I now have a better understanding of the destructive power of explosions measured in kilotonnes (since ton and tonne are roughly equivalent). These were about half a kilotonne.
In total 21 mines were laid but two of them were not used, and the British then lost their location. One of them was detonated in 1955 by a lightning strike on a nearby pylon, but wrecking the surrounding area but killing only one cow, whilst the other still hasn’t been found.

 As well as the aerial footage, some of the usual black-and-white film was shown in this: the guns firing, the men going over the top and a particular clip of a soldier carrying his wounded comrade out of a trench. All of these were immediately familiar since, before we came back to Britain, our TV viewing over a few days consisted entirely of The Great War. This series was first broadcast in 1964, narrated by Michael Redgrave, and is still well worth watching. Really, if you haven’t seen it, I suggest you do.

Update: I stand corrected. It was a total of 450 tons of explosives distributed to make 19 (or quite possible 21) mines under the German lines. This means they weight in at between 20 and 25 tons each and, as I noted in comments, was enough to shake the teacups in Downing Street. Then again, all of them went off within seconds of each other. Anyway, this brings me to the conclusion that a half kilotonne explosion would be enough to excavate Hanningfield reservoir, not the village duck pond.  


Spencer said...

During a school trip to tyne cott and flanders years ago, we visited the site of an explosion under the german lines. Not sure if it was one of the one's mentioned here, but the large pond/crater left was still quite a sight, especially when i was younger and more easily impressed. There was a chrome statue there aswell, a dove i think, or maybe two. Also, the world at war, the 1974 series narated by laurence olivier can be purchased on dvd aswell, im sure its not that much now. Its not WW1, but its still a brilliant series with lots of footage and eye-witness accounts. And the worst part? Most of this country are more interested in watching fucking X-Factor than on events which brought us to where we are today. Depressing.

Wraitholme said...

Multiple tons of explosive. A missing unexploded mined mine.

Right, I'm never going anywhere near Mesen.

As an aside, the wikipedia article on the battle seems to think that the total over all of the mines was 450, rather than 450 per mine.
Considering the large holes that resulted, I'm not sure if that's better or worse as a thought...

Neal Asher said...

Spencer, I considered mentioning The World at War (the Olivier one) but stuck to WWI. Just like with The Great War we got it as a free gift through a national newspaper. Yes, it is another excellent series.

I'll have to check that out, Wraitholme - I probably misheard. That would then give us about twenty tons of explosive per mine - apparently enough to rattle the teacups in Downing Street.

Neal Asher said...

Yep, checking about five different sources I see that it was a 'total' of 450 tons. Thanks Wraitholme.

Spencer said...

Okay, i looked it up, the place i visited is known as the "Pool of peace", and it was indeed one of the 19 mines detonated under the germans. This one was the largest, apparently 91,000lbs of ammonal explosive. It said 9 divisions of troops attacked after the explosions, but this one was delayed by 15 seconds, something to do with the fuses that were used. The 36th Royal Irish Rifles then had this exlode infront of them as they were advancing, which can't have been very pleasent. The statue i remember was actually of two people holding hands with a dove, and i even found a picture:
All that from a 10+ year old memory. The internet is brilliant.

Andrew said...

This was the most interesting television I have watched for a long time.

I cannot imagine what it was like for the soldiers to fight in these conditions, particularly when it rained.

The before and after photographs were incredible. Whole cities and villages being laid waste really brought it home.

[A bit off topic but as part of my work - structural engineer - I have to check sites out in London for unexploded bombs from the Blitz. I have maps showing all the damaged buildings in London. I used to live in a flat built over a V2 rocket crater - that had a 1 ton warhead. Check out the clips on you tube.]

Also search for the channel 4 programme called blitz street which tested various WW2 bombs of varying yields, including a V2.

Huan said...

I watched a Documentary recently about the recovery and disposal of some huge unstable mass of explosives that had been there since WW1. It was fairly recently that it was recovered under a car park or monument or something.

Neal Asher said...

Spencer, yup, you gotta love the Internet, unless of course you're a publisher of reference books!

Andrew, particular references to that in The Great War, how in Flanders the soldiers considered being shot or blown up infinitely preferable to how many of them died, which was drowning in mud.

Huan, yes, the bit I referenced about those two remaining mines mentioned that the other might have been found, but they weren't sure yet.

Anonymous said...

My missus was crying at the end of this programme. I said if she thought that was bad, she should try wearing a scole for a couple of years.

Friso said...

I've visited Ypers and its surrounding battlefields a few times now and it never fails to impress. If you're there, I'd recommend also visiting the German graveyards at Langemarck and Vladslo.
The BBC series is excellent and should be watched by everyone with a passing interest in the subject.

Neal Asher said...

shayba, get her to watch the two other documentaries mentioned here. They would wipe away the tears and just leave her feeling numb. The Great War, for example, just delivers a bit too much to process.

Friso, I always wondered about going on one of those 'war walks' over there.

Friso said...

You should. I'd avoid the ones where you get to dress up as a soldier and such as they, in my view, dramatically miss the point, but there's some good ones available. Our tour guide pointed out a farm that's suspected to be on the spot where the last mine is buried. Apparently it can be had for cheap:)