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Soldiers' remains found in World War I tunnel

The Local · 19 Oct 2011, 08:48

Published: 19 Oct 2011 08:48 GMT+02:00

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Under the rich Alsatian soil lies a labyrinth of passageways buried into the Lerchenberg hills. Built nearly 100 years ago, they were used by soldiers to shelter from shelling during the Great War.

The 21 soldiers were found in passageway known as Kilianstollen, inside their almost untouched living quarters.

In October 2010, construction of a bypass near the town of Altkirch was disrupted by the 125-metre tunnel, which combat engineers had built seven metres under the surface. After a skeletal foot, a camp bed and fragments of a jaw bone were unearthed during digging. work on the road was quickly stopped and archaeologists called in.

When the team of scientists began excavating the tunnel, they made the shocking discovery.

Kilianstollen was located 150 metres behind the German front line. At 1.8 metres high and 1.1 metres wide, the tunnel was thought to be bomb proof and could offer up to 500 soldiers a break from the trenches.

For two years it was unscathed, but one March afternoon in 1918, the peace was broken. After a particularly heavy mustard gas attack – a chemical weapon which releases a powerful skin irritant – from the German army, the Allies retaliated with force as they rained explosives down on the area.

At around 2 p.m. the weakest area of the tunnel was struck three times in quick succession. The ceiling collapsed and for many, escape was impossible. In total 34 soldiers died in the attack, but 13 of were pulled out of the collapsed tunnel immediately.

Scientists have been excavating Kilianstollen since 13 September. "Our work here should have ended by 10 October, but the dig has been extended until the beginning of December,” said Michaël Landolt of the Alsatian office for archaeology in Sélestat. “We didn’t expect to find corpses.”

All of the Kilianstollen victims have been identified. Some of the youngest amongst them were 20-year-old musketeer Martin Heidrich from the town of Schönfeld in Saxony and 22-year-old Lance Corporal Harry Bierkamp from Hamburg. The oldest was Sergeant August Hütten, 37, from Aachen. The men belonged to the 6th Company of the 94th Reserve Infantry Division, and up until now had been recorded as lost.

Landolt explained, “Death was a daily event here, but in comparison with Verdun or the Somme, where 1,000 soldiers were being killed a minute, it was relatively calm.”

The discovery in Kilianstollen is helping archaeologists piece together a picture of everyday trench life. Each wine glass, jam jar or coat hook is shedding a little more light onto the darkness of the not so distant past.

Story continues below…

"Such discoveries are seldom made in archaeology," said Landolt. “Everything is still in its place, nothing has changed since the explosion. It makes you think of Pompeii.”

Since the team of archaeologists have successfully identified the dead men, the search has begun to find their closest living relatives. If they remain unclaimed, they will be laid to rest in the national German war cemetery.

DAPD/The Local/jcw

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

16:19 October 19, 2011 by Frenemy
"in comparison with Verdun or the Somme, where 1,000 soldiers were being killed a minute"

Really makes you realize how casualty-averse modern warfare is. And to think how politically intolerable a few thousand KIA in around a DECADE in Iraq/Afghanistan is...(what is that, like less than 15 minutes on the front-lines at the Somme?)
17:47 October 19, 2011 by Englishted
What would they make of the mess we are in today?

Having died in the war to end war.
20:36 October 19, 2011 by Jack Kerouac
Funny how they thought the solution to end all wars was another war.
22:20 October 19, 2011 by wood artist
Every war is fought with the stated intention that it will be the Last War. And every war plants the seeds of the next war.

We will only achieve peace when everyone wants peace. As Golda Mier put it "We will have peace when they love their children more than they hate us." To me, her statement has nothing to do with Muslim and Jews, and everything to do with the reality of human nature. Personally, I like to believe that Europe figured that out. Unfortunately, I'm not sure much of the rest of the world has, and that, sadly, include the US.

08:01 October 20, 2011 by parografik
I'm fairly certain Europe has not figured this out, and to think that it has, is to be blind to history. Peace has broken out for generations at a time in the past, but it seems the peace can sometimes create an amnesia for the past, as in the fervor for war just prior to WWI. Exporting weapons to other countries is not a sign of peace, and I'm not just referring to the article running concurrently with this one about German Arms being sent to repressive regimes. A fair number of other European countries are busy building arms and exporting arms as well. As an American, I have often wondered what would happen if we put the money into infrastructure instead of arms.

There is something in your well stated first stanza, wood artist, and if we could remember the traumas of past wars without being so traumatized that we feel compelled to repeat them, perhaps we stand a chance. But at this point, I wonder if anyone is alive who does not carry the seeds of current wars within ourselves.

To look at the fairly recent violence in Bosnia and Rwanda between peoples already in the same lands, it seems hundreds of years are still not enough to destroy those seeds. Unfortunately in these cases ideas, memory, and violence are not likely seeds, but part of what makes us human.
20:44 October 20, 2011 by Whipmanager
As I read above, I agree, that in an ideal world, it would be great to turn swords into Plow Shares, but, I often see that those that prepare for peace, find it not, but those that prepare for war, and are ready, find peace, so I would prefer that we have the best and most powerful military in teh world, ready adn able to strike any part of the world at any moment, so that no one will test us, and provoke hell.

I went to Rwanda, I was also in Bosnia, two different worlds fro outsiders. But for the inhabitants, so very different. WHen you kill the last person who holds a grudge for familial mayhem, in BOsnia, or places like it, you may find an end to the need to destroy the destroyers.

WHen I saw a lady push a body out of the way, in the lake, so that she could fill her water container to walk back several miles to take the water to her family, I saw how futile it is to try to bring peace to everyone. SOme just dont want it. Tehy just wont forget, or forgive.

Mass graves in Libya, Bosnia, Poland, All over Africa, Around Europe, maybe in the USA, from different eras, you see, the faces change, as do the names, but we as humans, no matter how advanced we seem to be, never quite get there.....
21:59 October 21, 2011 by jhellden
"in comparison with Verdun or the Somme, where 1,000 soldiers were being killed a minute"

The battle of Verdun was fought from the 21th February to the 18th December 1916. That is a total of 300 days. 60 x 24 x 300 x 1,000 = 432,000,000

Verdun resulted in 306,000 battlefield deaths (163,000 French and 143,000 German combatants) plus at least half a million wounded, an average of 30,000 deaths for each of the ten months of the battle.
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