Book Review: Beneath the Killing Fields: Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front


by Matthew Leonard

Barnsley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2017. Pp. xx, 170. Illus., maps, notes, biblio. $39.95. ISBN: 1783463066

Underground on the Western Front

When I first received this book, I noticed that it was short at 170 pages, heavy, expensive at $40, printed on glossy paper, and profusely illustrated with photographs of craters, tunnels, monuments, and soldiers, plus a few maps. Not the usual Great War volume as it doesn’t concentrate on a specific battle but describes how subterranean activities affected men and were used to wage war. The author has a Ph.D. in archaeology and has contributed extensively to the field of Modern Conflict Archaeology, a new interdisciplinary approach to the study of post-1900 conflicts. This approach uses every kind of information available, from graffiti and art work, discarded armaments, and tattered gas curtains, to understand underground conflict.

The book begins with a glossary, vital for readers not familiar with things like camouflets, kinanesthesia, and souterraine. The first chapter is an overview of underground warfare and tunneling from Alexander the Great through the American Civil War, the Japanese defenders on many Pacific island, as well as in Vietnam and by drug smugglers, and, more importantly, how the military coped with tunnels. During the Great War, hundreds of troops were staged underground to attack the enemy. The author stated in an email that the yardage of tunneling almost equaled the yardage of trenches. What varied between the combatants was the approach to tunneling.

The Germans viewed tunneling and the construction of dugouts as a defensive matter so that their troops could survive shelling and emerge to defeat Allied attackers, as they did in the battle of the Somme. The furnishings of destroyed villages outfitted German dugouts comfortably, while the Allies did not want their men to be comfortable so as to encourage them to evict the Germans from France.

The Allies considered underground work useful for offensive purposes. Before the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge (April 9-12, 1917), hundreds of troops had to wait in cramped quarters with no sanitary facilities except their immediate position. The stench, severely cramped quarters, and pre-battle tension did nothing for morale.

A chapter is devoted to the senses; how each can be used underground to compensate for vision which no longer functions in the dark. When one side would break into the tunnel of the other, soldiers would identify friend from foe by feeling for epaulettes on German shoulders in the dark. Then hand-to-hand combat would break out in spaces too small for standing. Yet the tunnelers left a human quality behind through graffiti, inscriptions on walls to suppress conversation, and even a few works of art.

Dr. Leonard then discusses the beginning of underground archaeology, with a group studying a mined tunnel left underground decades earlier that had been defused. The group took the name Durand from a mine in the Vimy Ridge area and remained together to study other tunnels, enhancing their knowledge about the skills and innovation necessary to wage war underground. Throughout the book are color photographs of the Durand group working underground and the difficulties are obvious; very tight quarters, uneven surfaces, knee deep water, left over grenades from both sides and collapses of the covering farm fields from heavy rainfall. One member of the group died when a chalk overhead collapsed.

There is more to this book than the suffering of digging tunnels; descriptions of disastrous battles, monuments listing the missing by the tens of thousands, illustrations of the ossuary and the inter-disciplinary approach of archaeology and anthropology. The latter quality makes this book particularly worthwhile as the reader learns about an aspect of the war previously untouched; the extent of tunneling, the learning curve of using tunnels to advantage and the various affects upon soldiers and the war, including the nerve-wracking silence while digging – and listening -- required to prevent discovery by the enemy just a few feet away.

Read Beneath the Killing Fields to develop a very different perspective of the war, how it was fought and its affects upon the combatants. The war was even more wretched than we thought.

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Our Reviewer: Ron Drees is an archivist, retired from processing the collection of Dr. Michael DeBakey, a world-famous cardiologist at the Baylor College of Medicine. His interest in history dates back to junior high school with an emphasis on American military history, particularly the Civil and World Wars. He has written several reviews for Michael Hanlon's blog "Roads to the Great War", about the catastrophe that still shapes the world. His favorite WWI book is Margaret MacMillan’s Paris, 1919 which tells how the tragedy was compounded by setting the stage for even greater misery. He lives in Houston with his wife of 42 years and their Sheltie, Hannah. His previous reviews include Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918.




Note: A volume in the Pen & Sword series “Modern Conflict Archaeology”, Beneath the Killing Fields is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium (

Reviewer: Ron Drees   

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