Twenty-one German soldiers entombed in a perfectly preserved World War One shelter have been discovered 94 years after they were killed. The men were part of a larger group of 34 who were buried alive when a huge Allied shell exploded above the tunnel, near the small town of Carspach in the Alsace region in France, in 1918 causing it to cave in.
Nearly a century later French archaeologists stumbled upon the mass grave on the former Western Front during excavation work for a road building project. Many of the skeletal remains were found in the same positions the men had been in at the time of the collapse, prompting experts to liken the scene to Pompeii. A number of the soldiers were discovered sitting upright on a bench, one was lying in his bed and another was in the foetal position having been thrown down a flight of stairs.
Thirteen bodies were recovered from the underground shelter but the remaining men had to be left under a mountain of mud as it was too dangerous to retrieve them. As well as the bodies, poignant personal effects such as boots, helmets, weapons, wine bottles, spectacles, wallets, pipes, cigarette cases and pocket books were also found. Even the skeleton of a goat was found, assumed to be a source of fresh milk for the soldiers.
Archaeologists believe the items were so well preserved because hardly any air, water or lights had penetrated the trench. The 300ft long tunnel was located 18ft beneath the surface.
Michael Landolt, the archaeologist leading the dig, said: "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 foetal position.
"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 and we found some pages of newspapers that were still readable.
"Leather was in good condition as well, still supple. The items will be taken to a laboratory, cleaned and examined."
The dead soldiers were part of the 6th Company, 94th Reserve Infantry Regiment. Their names are all known. They include Musketeer Martin Heidrich, 20, Private Harry Bierkamp, 22, and Lieutenant August Hutten, 37. Their names are inscribed on a memorial in the nearby German war cemetery of Illfurth.
The bodies have been handed over to the German War Graves Commission but unless relatives can be found and they request the remains to be repatriated, it is planned that the men will be buried at Illfurth.
The underground tunnel was big enough to shelter 500 men and had 16 exits. It would have been equipped with heating, telephone connections, electricity, beds and a pipe to pump out water. The French attacked the shelter on March 18, 1918 with aerial mines that penetrated the ground and blasted in the side wall of the shelter in two points.
It is estimated that over 165,000 Commonwealth soldiers are still unaccounted for on the Western Front.
A large hammer possibly used to help dig the tunnel has been found at the site
A leather gun holster has been preserved
A drinks cup and the remains of a gun
Preserved timbers that formed the walls of the tunnel.
Timbers lining the tunnel
Source: The Telegraph