Secret cave shelter of Lancashire's First World War soldiers

As the centenary of the First World War draws to a close, Dean Kirby goes deep beneath the Somme and explores the caves which became a final sanctuary for British soldiers, including men from Lancashire.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 12th September 2018, 5:06 pm
Updated Wednesday, 12th September 2018, 5:12 pm
Etching by a First World War soldier in the caves beneath Bouzincourt
Etching by a First World War soldier in the caves beneath Bouzincourt

In the pitch blackness of a man-made cave 40ft beneath a village in Northern France, two words written by an unknown soldier in 1916 flicker in the pale light of a torch.

“Welcome home.”

In an instant, the message etched in pencil on a rock wall at the height of the Battle of the Somme flashes across the century the writer probably never got to see.

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British soldiers marching through Bouzincourt during the First World War.

Welcome to Les Muches de Bouzincourt - the hidden caves where British and Commonwealth soldiers found sanctuary in the bowels of the earth from the horrors in the world above.

I was granted access to this rarely-visited underworld by the villagers of Bouzincourt, near Albert, as they work to preserve the caves to keep alive the soldiers’ memory.

And down here in the dark, amid the remnants of First World War kit including helmets, bullets, tins of corned beef and a rifle left behind in the rush to return home after the Armistice, can be found the final messages and signatures of men from across the British Isles, Canada and Australia.

They scrawled and carved their final words in the soft chalk walls while sheltering here before heading into the trenches. Many of them would be dead within days - but their handwriting remains as fresh as if it had been written only seconds ago.

Etching by a First World War soldier in the caves beneath Bouzincourt

“We have found 2,100 names in all,” says Jean Luc Rouvillain, 56, the deputy mayor of Bouzincourt. “It’s just remarkable.”

The caves beneath the Church of St Honoré, the patron saint of French bakers, were built by an earlier generation of Bouzincourt villagers in the 16th century to protect their families from invaders.

Mr Rouvillain, whose family has been living in the village for centuries, has even found the name of one of his earliest ancestors in the caves from 1711.

Equipped with hard hats and torches, he leads the way through a small door inside the church and down a steep passageway below ground as the temperature drops by degrees with every step.

Etching by a First World War soldier in the caves beneath Bouzincourt

And then, in the thin beams of torchlight, the last words of the young men who died in the nearby trenches suddenly begin to reappear.

One after the other, the names stand out as if in a roll call - Harold Holness from Warwickshire, Thomas Morton from Birmingham followed dozens of men from Lancashire, Scotland, Kent, Northamptonshire and Gloucester.

Then two self portraits carved into the rock and a hand-drawn Union Flag come into view, and a sign of one man’s innermost thoughts about home: “Dick Barton loves Denise McCourt.”

As we go deeper into the confusing labyrinth of passageways and stoop beneath the rock into chambers to avoid banging our heads, new secrets are revealed.

Etching by a First World War soldier in the caves beneath Bouzincourt

A cross carved into one wall denotes that this chamber served as a chapel, while a hole rising to the surface through the rough hewn ceiling acted as a chimney for an underground kitchen.

Another chamber marked WC and containing a rusting bucket is believed to have served as a toilet.

Some inscriptions honour the regiments who were here including a message praising the “Die Hards” of the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment - the 1st Football Battalion - whose members included the former Tottenham player and first mixed heritage British Army officer Walter Tull.

The First World War equipment found by the villagers down here include a Royal Field Artillery badge, buttons from British uniforms, cooking pots, coins, flasks, a toothbrush and a stone jar that once contained the soldiers’ rum rations.

Even more personal items preserved by the caves’ constant temperatures are likely to be found as the villagers have begun to shift earth from chambers that are yet to be fully explored.

“Some of these passageways are too unstable,” Mr Rouvillain says. “We can’t go down there.”

Etching by a First World War soldier in the caves beneath Bouzincourt

But who were the British soldiers who look shelter down here so close to the frontline of the Somme?

One name carved into the rock, Major General William Rycroft, stands out above all others. But whether the commander of the 32nd Division found himself down here with his troops or if the name was written as a joke by one of his men remains a mystery.

A retired Lancashire couple, Pat and David Shackleton, have researched many of the names, addresses and serial numbers written in the caves after visiting them while spending a few summers living in France.

They have since made pilgrimages to the graves of more than a dozen British and Canadian soldiers aged from 20 to 25 who died in battle after putting their names on the walls.

Among them was Harold Mottershead, a 24-year-old private from the 2nd Bn, Lancashire Fusiliers, who went almost immediately from the tunnels to the frontline.

He was killed on July 2, 1916 - the second day of the Battle of the Somme - leaving behind his widow, Nancy. His body was never found and he is now commemorated on Thiepval Memorial just a few miles from Bouzincourt.

Nancy penned a poem in the Manchester Evening News, which said: “Death cannot long divide, for it is not as though, The rose that climbed my garden wall, Had blossomed on the other side? Death doth hide, but not divide.”

Another man, Harold Simpkin, a warehouse manager from Nottingham who became a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery, was killed on May 30, 1918 and is buried at Berles New Military Cemetery, near Arras.

His records show the personal effects sent to his wife, Anne, at their terraced house which still stands in Chatsworth Avenue, Basford, included a letter, a brooch and three coins described as souveniers. He had previously been wounded in action.

His wife, siblings and parents all posted messages of mourning in the Nottingham Evening Post.

Others include Peter Steele, born in Harringay, London, who emigrated to Saskatchewan in Canada with his parents Alfred and Maude and is buried at Villers-au-Bois with other members of the 54th battalion of the Canadian Infantry after his death aged just 20 in 1917.

“It’s so important to remember these men and keep their memory alive,” said Mrs Shackleton.

“Most of these boys were young lads who thought they were going on an adventure and never came home.

“You have to realise what they did for us. Without them, we wouldn’t have the future that we have today. The words they wrote on those walls in Bouzincourt were often the last words they ever wrote.”

As my journey into the dark vaults of Bouzincourt comes to an end, a message from 1918 reveals itself on one of the walls saying “la Guerre finie” - the war is over - above a cross scratched in the rock.

Emerging back from the stale air of the caves into the Church of St Honoré, which was rebuilt after the First World War, Mr Rouvillain, takes a deep breath.

“The soldiers came from around the world and put their names on those walls,” he says. “It’s important for us to remember them.”

The caves were never occupied by the Germans or even French soldiers. British unit war diaries suggest they may have been a well-kept secret - with one battalion billeted here referring only to being in “dugouts” in its official war record.

And this underground realm could yet hold further secrets according to Jeff Gusky, a doctor, artist and explorer who has also been underground in Bouzincourt.

He believes JRR Tolkien, who spent 10 days in the village while serving in the Lancashire Fusiliers, may have been inspired by the caves when he created the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

Dr Gusky, a world leading expert in exploring the hidden underground environments of the First World War, says: “It’s inconceivable that Tolkien didn’t know about these caves. I believe this is the place where Lord of the Rings was born in his imagination.

“When you are down there, it’s Middle Earth. It’s an alternative universe where people are living underground because the surface of the Earth has become dehumanised.”

Dr Gusky has even found a message in the Bouzincourt caves by a British soldier named Ernest Pinder of the Northumberland Fusiliers which says he was the “first British soldier to enter these vaults” on June 12, 1916. Records suggest Private Pinder survived the war.

Dr Gusky adds: “This place is sacred ground for the British, but the British know so little about this hidden world.

“It was so close to the extreme violence of the Somme. Many of these young men would have died and what you are seeing is their last inscriptions on these walls.

“The Bouzincourt caves are ground zero in a bloody chapter in the history of the First World War. It’s an emotional moment when you enter these caves an put them in the context of the losses the British Army suffered on the Somme.”