To those of you not aware of the diggers, very briefly... they are a group of amateur archaeologists who ply their trade on the outskirts of Ypres. They meet mainly at weekends and excavate the old trench works at Boezinge near Pilkhem Ridge. They are NOT battlefield scavengers. The whole purpose of their work is to excavate trenches that would otherwise be buried forever under the trading estate that is being built there. The trenches that they expose can sometimes give up the bodies service men who fell in battle though this is not why they dig. When this happens the team try to identify the man they have found and he is always handed over to the proper authorities for burial in a nearby military cemetery.
In March 2002 I emailed the Diggers webmaster Aurel Sercu and asked if it would be possible to visit the site at Boezinge. I expect they get a lot of enquiries like this and I half expected to be fobbed off with one excuse or another... Well I was to be surprised, Aurel emailed me back within a day or two and said that it would not be problem, he gave me instructions to the site and asked that I give him a call nearer the time. Well this was great news. The lads and myself would be travelling up from Verdun on the Friday so we booked our rooms at the Shell Hole in the town centre at Ypres.
We planned to meet Aurel at one thirty on Saturday. In the morning we took ourselves off to POP..!
Poperinge or pop/pops to the troops of the day, was an important rail head behind the British lines tens of thousands of troops were billeted there and anyone who had fought in the Salient (Ypres Salient) would have had to have gone through Pop. It was also an administrative centre for the divisions in the area and as such many court marshalls and executions took place within the town...
There is a man called Jacques Ryckebosch, he is the warden of Talbot House Poperinge (Toc-H) which was founded by the Rev Tubby Clayton in 1915 to provide comfort and entertainment to the troops in the town, indeed Flanagan & Allan met at Toc-H. The enthusiasm with which Jacques describes the events that took place in Toc-H & Poperinge during the Great War was wonderful to Witness. We visited Toc-H at around 11:00 Jacques took our group and a coach party to the old concert hall in the garden at the rear of Toc-H. I noticed a bench dedicated to the memory of John Giles, founder of The Western Front Association (Have you joined yet!) Once in the concert hall Jacques told us about the history of Toc-H we saw a short film about Pops during the war and he described the town as it was during the war. Toc-H was a true Haven in Hell for Tommy during the Great War. The only proviso for anyone entering its door was that they abandon rank, I sign in the hall asks that officers leave their rank at the door, another interesting sign reads "If you spit on the floor at home, then please do so here". Men were made to feel at home and the visitor today is made to feel the same. We then went up into the chapel that is situated in the roof of the building. Jacques told us of how Tubby scrounged items to furnish it and what a good job he did. The candle holders (I am not sure of the correct term) were made from the posts of a four poster bed and the alter is a carpenters work bench. If you get the chance to visit then my advice is do. Toc-H is a Christian organisation that does much good works today. Now, I would not describe myself as "God Fearing" But when you see the work that Tubby did, I bet he got more converts his way than any street corner preacher ever could.
The Trenches at Boezinge
The highlight of our whole trip for me had to be meeting the diggers. True to their word Aurel and Andre met us at the dig site. We had expected to just watch them dig and perhaps if we were lucky they would show us some items they had recently found. Instead they spent two hours giving us a guided tour of the dig site, showing us previously exposed trench systems,dugouts etc. Standing at the entrance to a real dugout looking down the flooded shaft was probably the closest I will ever get to the great war, you can read books visit museums but this was real, men had lived in this dugout. Aurel and Andre described how when they first opened up this dugout the entrance was full of silt once this had been cleared they found the dugout contained tables and chairs a shirt hung on a hook on the wall. Below are some of the dig sites still visible.
1. Entrance to a dugout 2.excavated trench system 3. visible inverted *A frames 4. recently excavated trench system with inverted A frame clearly visable 5 the roof or the floor of a reinforced blockhouse 6 light railway used to bring supplies up to the front. *(An inverted a frame is three pieces of wood made into an A and then turned upside down, these are then used to hold the sides of the trench up. The cross bar of the upturned A supports the duct boards, the area below the duct boards is used as a sump for water to pass.)
For more details about the diggers visit their web site via my links page
The Menin Gate
Whenever we visit the old front line, we almost always visit Ypres and when in Ypres we always visit the Menin gate at eight o'clock. I cannot describe the feeling you get when the last post sounds and you look up at those 58,000 names carved on every surface. The 58,000 men who fell within the salient and have no known grave. It is almost unbelievable yet it happened and the Menin Gate is a reminder to all peoples of what happens when people stop talking . There was a bit of a ceremony at the gate when we arrived The Belgian, British & German Military were represented but I have to say the German troops that marched past where a rabble.... They seem to have turned the art of marching into a sort of amble, very odd.
After the gate we trotted off to the Vivaldi restaurant opposite the cloth hall for some flemish stew and then back to The Shellhole for a few beers. Another trip done.