Archaeologists Find Entrance To The Infamous Winterberg Tunnel Disaster

Trees and foliage grew above the battlefield, obscuring where the tunnel had been. Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com

A group of amateur French archaeologists were conducting an illegal dig near the French town of Craonne, when they came across what they believe could be remains from the infamous Winterberg tunnel disaster, 101 years after the harrowing event took place.

In early 1917, French forces launched an all-out offensive on the Chemin des Dames ridge, to the north-east of Paris, in an attempt to take back the region of Aisne. In order to supply the German forces – and unknown to the French – the German troops had built an underground tunnel that ran for 300 meters (984 feet) on the North side of the ridge.

On May 4, 1917, over 270 soldiers were sheltered inside this tunnel when heavy bombardment from the French hit the entrance and exit, setting it and the reserve ammunition stored there on fire and sealing the only ways out shut. 

Ventilation shafts were also shut, leaving the tunnels to be filled with poisonous gas. Over the next six days, the oxygen ran out, suffocating those who didn't die by suicide beforehand. Only three survived long enough to be rescued, and describe the situation they'd faced down there.

"Time passed and breathing became difficult," Musketier Karl Fißer of the 11th Company Reserve Infantry Regiment 111 wrote. "The heat was unbearable. We began to feel thirsty ... We lost all hope."

"I shall never forget the death of my comrades. One was calling for his wife, another for his parents and siblings. I, too, was emotionally shattered and I mentally took my leave of all I held dear. The struggle for life or death was slow and dreadful. 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."

Fißer describes how his friend asked him to load a pistol for him to end his life, before he searched for a pistol for himself, only to faint before he could fire the gun. As he crawled around in the dark, searching for water, he came across a flashlight and attempted to turn it on.

"It took all my strength and then the light hurt my eyes, but what I saw were terrible scenes. My dead, naked comrades lay in cramped positions and with outstretched arms. I did not want to see any more and switched the torch off again ... and lost consciousness, for how long I do not know."

Trees and foliage grew above the battlefield, obscuring where the tunnel had been. The location remained a mystery for a century, before Alain Malinowski discovered a map of its location and headed to the site to pinpoint it in the real world. 

The authorities did nothing about his find for over a decade, when his son – Pierre – conducted an illegal dig at the site, digging four meters down into the ground. He and his team found hundreds of gas mask canisters, two bodies, as well as an array of guns.

With no other choice now that the site has been found and the press alerted by Malinowski, the authorities will decide on whether to excavate the site shortly, though experts at the German war graves commission told The Times that they are almost certain the Winterberg tunnel has been found.

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