They were always thought to be lost–the 270 German soldiers trapped inside a 1,000-foot tunnel, whose entrances were sealed off by bombs from the French infantry in May 1917. For the next six days, as reported by historynet, oxygen thinned and the men who didn’t die, asked others to kill them.
According to the BBC, three men were rescued and one, Karl Fisser, left an account of what had happened inside the Winterberg tunnel. “Everyone was calling for water, but it was in vain. Death laughed at its harvest and Death stood guard on the barricade, so nobody could escape. Some raved about rescue, others for water. One comrade lay on the ground next to me and croaked with a breaking voice for someone to load his pistol for him.”
These bodies were recently discovered, as reported by the BBC, after a father and son team, Alain and Pierre Malinowski, found one of the entrances after a painstaking search.
The tunnel sits under the Chemin des Dames (Ladies Path) battlefront, once an idyllic rural part of France, used by the daughters of King Louis XV in the 18th century to travel between the Ailette river valley to the north and the Aisne river valley to the south. The road runs east to west and is nearly 20 miles long.
During World War 1, in 1914, the Allies chased the retreating Germans across the Chemin des Dames after the First Battle of the Marne. The German troops dug in on the northern high ground and kept their position for two years. On May 14, 1917, after sustaining 120,000 casualties in fighting, the French were forced to leave but not before they had sealed off both sides of the tunnel, trapping the soldiers inside.
Alain Malinowski used to work on the Paris underground and started combing through maps at the military archives in the Château de Vincennes in the 1990s to find where the entrance might be. After finding a contemporary map, he combed through the actual woodland measuring out the spot. Malinowski told Le Monde that “I felt it. I knew I was near. I knew the tunnel was there somewhere beneath my feet.”
However, after alerting the authorities, no action was taken, and it was only when Alain’s son (Pierre, a former soldier) hired a bulldozer and began to dig into the earth, that the duo realised they were in the right place–his team found gas canisters, rails for transporting munitions, rifles and the remains of two soldiers. When the French authorities still did not respond, Malinowski reported the news to Le Monde.
As the soldiers were not French, the French government had never decided to open the tunnel and whilst some of the response has been positive from historians and archaeologists, others believe it forces the government to protect the site from looters. There have been calls that it dishonours the dead. There is also a view that more people might be encouraged to undertake similar discoveries but for more mercenary reasons.
The tunnel’s story is not uncommon in this part of France. Jean-Pierre Laparra is the mayor of a small village, with exactly zero inhabitants. The village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont, 90 minutes by car from the city of Reims (128 km/80 miles), was completely wiped out between 23 June and 18 August, 1916 when bombs razed the houses and killed 80,000 soldiers.
Walking through the craters in the nearby woods, Laparra still has the same job as any other French mayor (although he is elected by regional representatives rather than local voters) to look after and preserve the history of the village which his ancestors helped to build. Visitors today might marvel at how many unexploded shells still lie beneath their feet or at the idea of walking above the remains of 10,000 men who lost their lives while sheltering amongst the trees.
For the Winterberg tunnel, the question remains about what to do with the soldiers’ remains. Should the bodies be brought up and buried in a German war cemetery? Should there be a full archaeological dig? Should there be a museum, something to commemorate the lives lost?
There are efforts underway to trace the remains to identify the soldiers. This regiment (the 11th) recruited men in the Baden region of the Swabian Alps–nine men have so far been identified.
For Pierre Malinowski, he considers it the duty of everyone to pay honor to the men–he has not let them been photographed and nothing has left the site. He said, “these were farmers, hairdressers, bank-clerks who came willingly to fight this war, and then died in a way that we cannot begin to comprehend.”