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.
“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.