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Anzac heroes left a bomb under my farm

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BerichtGeplaatst: 16 Mei 2010 13:25    Onderwerp: Anzac heroes left a bomb under my farm Reageer met quote

Anzac heroes left a bomb under my farm

NZAC Day tourists visiting the Western Front this weekend have some new sites to explore following the release of a film about the little-known exploits of Australian military tunnellers in 1917.

But Marcel Mahieu is already fully aware of the work of those long-ago miners.

The 75-year-old Belgian farmer lives above an enormous bomb that was buried deep beneath the German front line as part of the audacious effort by Australian, British and Canadian tunnelers to blow up the German defences.

The new film Beneath Hill 60 tells how 19 mines were simultaneously exploded beneath the Germans at 3.10am on June 7, 1917, causing the largest non-nuclear, man-made explosion in history. The explosion was so massive that it caused an artificial earthquake that destroyed the German trenches and allowed Allied troops to sweep through what was left of the German lines.

A 20th mine had been planted near the Mahieu family's farmhouse south of the Belgian town of Zonnebeke but it was disabled by the Germans, who dug their own tunnel to intercept and blow up the Allied tunnel leading to the mine.

"We have always known that this massive bomb is sitting down there but you can't spend your time worrying about things like that, you have to get on with your life," Mahieu says.

Experts believe the explosives are probably too waterlogged to detonate but nobody is in a hurry to dig down to find out.

In 1955, Mahieu got a taste of the buried danger when a lightning strike in a neighbouring field set off another buried mine, one of four extra mines that were abandoned by the British in 1917 after a change of plans.

"That was a big explosion, you should have heard it, but we think it only went off because some digging had exposed the old wires leading to the detonator and that was hit by lightning," he says.

As Mahieu and his brother Alain, 70, were showing The Weekend Australian the entrance to the German counter-tunnel one of their farm workers approached with some bad news that was another reminder of the carnage that went on in these fields almost a century ago.

A tractor ploughing a field 150m from the old farmhouse had unearthed a half dozen live World War I artillery shells and a jumble of rusted war-time equipment including a British Lee Enfield rifle.

"We don't get scared when we find these shells, we get annoyed because that has just ruined my ploughing equipment," Mahieu says.

The farmers casually threw the old bombs and other pieces of wreckage into a pile beside the concrete remains of a German machine gun bunker that ruined another plough two weeks ago.

The shells will be collected by a Belgian army bomb disposal unit that removes the 300-odd tonnes of deadly explosives that emerge from the Flanders mud each year.

The Mahieu family were evacuated to France when the Germans attacked the area in 1914 but one of the German tunnellers returned in 1959 and told the family about the tunnelling battle that went on deep beneath their farm.

"That is when we realised why they dug this tunnel, which has still got a ladder and wooden walls and all sorts of cables running down it," he says.

"He said the Germans knew the Allies were doing something underground so they went down with listening equipment to try to find and attack the Allied tunnels."

A few kilometres further north is Hill 60, where two enormous, 80m-wide craters mark the explosions carried out by the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, the heroes of the new film.

Hill 60 is little more than a 10m high mound but it commands a view of the city of Ypres and the surrounding fields, which made it an important strategic goal during the years of trench warfare.

Local historian and archeologist Franky Bostyn says the uniformed miners saved tens of thousands of lives because their success in devastating the German defences allowed the Allies to capture territory with a relatively small loss of life.

"Capturing the same amount of territory a bit north of here in the Battle of Passchendaele cost half a million casualties so using those mines was the most effective thing that ever happened in World War I," he says. "It is fantastic that this film will bring some recognition to these men. There were very few units who saved so many lives or did so much good work on the Western Front, but they have always been ignored. Nobody was ever given a Victoria Cross for digging a tunnel but it was the man with the spade, not the soldier with the gun, who won this battle."

Bostyn says there are historical errors in the film, such as its depiction of the Australians working in 2m high tunnels as they planted their explosive. The tunnels were really 1.2m high crawling spaces, he explains. "But things like that don't matter. The important thing is that people recognise the amazing work these men did."

The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 that Bostyn runs in Zonnebeke will hold Anzac Day events. He says there has been a growing number of Australians visiting the area in recent years as more people realise the war was about much more than Gallipoli.
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