German dead from WWI uncovered in France

10/20/2011

Nearly a century after they were buried alive, the bodies of 21 German soldiers have been discovered in a World War I tunnel in France.

The men, killed in March 1918, were found in Alsace, in what was once part of a labyrinth of passageways that troops used to try to avoid shelling during the 1914-18 conflict.

The 21 soldiers were found in passageway known as Kilianstollen, inside their almost untouched living quarters, according to a publication called The Local.

Kilianstollen was located about 500 feet behind the German front line. It was six feet high, nearly four feet wide and more than 20 feet beneath the surface. Thought to be bomb proof, the tunnel could offer up to 500 soldiers a break from the trenches. 

For two years Kilianstollen survived Allied shelling unscathed, but one March afternoon in 1918, the Germans’ luck ran out. After a particularly heavy mustard gas attack – a chemical weapon which releases a powerful skin irritant – from the German army, the Allies retaliated with force as they rained explosives down on the area. 

At around 2 p.m. the weakest area of the tunnel was struck three times in quick succession. The ceiling collapsed and 34 soldiers were killed. Some 13 were pulled out immediately but the remainder were left entombed, according to The Local.

Fast forward 92 years to October 2010 when construction of a bypass near the town of Altkirch was disrupted by the 400-foot tunnel. After a skeletal foot, a camp bed and fragments of a jaw bone were unearthed during digging. work on the road was quickly stopped and archaeologists called in. 

When the team of scientists began excavating the tunnel, they made the shocking discovery. 

Scientists have been excavating Kilianstollen since mid-September.

“Our work here should have ended by 10 October, but the dig has been extended until the beginning of December,” said Michaël Landolt of the Alsatian office for archaeology in Sélestat. “We didn’t expect to find corpses.”

All of the Kilianstollen victims have been identified. Some of the youngest included 20-year-old musketeer Martin Heidrich from the town of Schönfeld in Saxony and 22-year-old Lance Corporal Harry Bierkamp from Hamburg. The oldest was Sergeant August Hütten, 37, from Aachen.

The men belonged to the 6th Company of the 94th Reserve Infantry Division, and up until now had been recorded as lost, according to The Local.

Landolt explained, “Death was a daily event here, but in comparison with Verdun or the Somme, where 1,000 soldiers were being killed a minute, it was relatively calm.”

The discovery in Kilianstollen is helping archaeologists piece together a picture of everyday trench life. Each wine glass, jam jar or coat hook is shedding a little more light onto the darkness of the not so distant past. 

“Such discoveries are seldom made in archaeology,” said Landolt. “Everything is still in its place, nothing has changed since the explosion. It makes you think of Pompeii.”

Since the team of archaeologists have successfully identified the dead men, the search has begun to find their closest living relatives. If they remain unclaimed, they will be laid to rest in the national German war cemetery.

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