Nieuwport in Belgium is still feeling the impact of World War One eighty years after the war ended. In December 2000, the main road through Nieuwport was in danger of collapse along with houses on it as a result of all the tunnels that were dug in the area during the war.
Scientists believe that many of the tunnels built by the Allies during the war are in danger and what is happening in Nieuwport could well affect other towns and villages in Flanders. The tunnels were shored up by timber and after 85 years, many of these timber supports are rotting away. Professor Peter Doyle, University of Greenwich, has said:
“Much of Flanders – the land over which the battle for Passchendaele was fought – is sitting on a time bomb.”
Deep tunnels were built by both the French and British in the area to protect troops before they went into battle. One such tunnel was built by the Royal Engineers in Nieuwport and it was built to house 10,000 troops and 627 artillery guns before the third battle of Ypres took place. These shelters within the tunnels were known as “elephant shelters” and they gave men protection from the constant bombardment of German artillery shells. One of these shelters and tunnels in Nieuwport is in danger of collapse.
The tunnels and shelters built around Nieuwport were on a vast scale. They had 226 staircase entrances and were ventilated by 2026 shafts. Individual shelters could house over 1000 men. They were built between 20 and 25 feet underground and the idea behind them was that the soldiers within them need not see daylight and therefore danger until the moment they were required for an attack.
A typical underground shelter like the ones found in Nieuwport – the wooden supports are clearly seen and it is the weakening of these that have caused the problems. The protection these shelters gave to the soldiers is clear to see.
Nieuwport suffered badly during the war and it was flattened after the war in 1918 to allow for a fresh start. This flattening put another 10 feet of soil and debris above the tunnels but of greater significance, the tunnels were not filled in simply because nobody knew they were there as both the French and the British high commands had moved on and left Flanders. The celebrations at the end of the war may well have lead to people simply forgetting that they were there.
Now the timbers used in the tunnels appear to have dried out leaving them in a very weakened state. This problem affects nearly 12 miles of tunnels and the cost of putting right the problem is vast.
Houses in Nieuwport above the tunnels are shored up to stop their collapse