Beneath the Glory Hole

Published:  17 December, 2012

In September, at the end of his first day at La Boisselle WW1 tunnel site, where he’d been training archaeologists and a BBC film crew in the use of breathing apparatus, Kevin James stood under the shower and shook with emotion for five minutes.

Nothing had prepared this experienced miner, firefighter, risk engineer, and BA trainer, for the emotional impact of what he found at the so-called Glory Hole.

The series of tunnels had been dug deep under the trenches in 1914-16 with the aim of placing explosives under the enemy’s trenches.

Strategically, La Boisselle (France) was of crucial importance as it formed part of the main axis of attack of the Battle of the Somme. The site has been termed as the ‘holy grail’ for historians, because not only has it lain untouched for so long, but also it includes the ‘fourth dimension’ of battle – underground warfare. Today, the site is being painstakingly examined by archaeologists in a project that is expected to last five years: La Boisselle Study Group Project.

Kevin James, international training coordinator for world-renowned breathing apparatus manufacturer Siebe Gorman, had been called upon to help train archaeologists and TV crews in BA use. ‘John Harvey, the new owner of Siebe Gorman, decided to donate BA equipment to La Boisselle Study Group Project after Project Leader Peter Barton got in touch after ascertaining that Siebe Gorman equipment had been used in the original excavation of the tunnels in 1915,' he explained.

The breathing apparatus was deemed crucial in order to assist entry to tunnels that lie 80 foot deep. ‘Archaeologists were going to be lowered down the shaft into the 80-foot-deep area to clear the last of the spoil from the base of the shaft. This would then allow access to bilateral tunnels running north and south.’

The donated equipment comprised two SG 100 SCBA sets, one Mark 3 Airline system, and five cylinders. The Airline system consists of a trolley housing two compressed air cylinders and a drum of 90m hose. An additional Y-piece and a 10m extension enables two men to breathe at the standard rate for an indefinite amount of time, provided depleted cylinders at the trolley are swapped.

‘The tunnels that are open at the moment have good ventilation and air quality, so nobody is in danger [from that quarter]. But what they will be using the BA for are the same reasons as they did back in 1915 – going into uninvestigated areas or new tunnels where the air quality is unknown. So if anything hazardous came out of the strata they could quickly don BA and escape.

‘Methane is flammable and explosive and it is usually found in coal mines, but it can also come from rotting vegetation and sewer systems. A leakage from a nearby village’s system could make it through to the tunnels – unlikely but it can’t be ruled out. And if an area is poorly ventilated the people underground could be increasing the CO2 quantity by breathing out.’

The equipment used by the original La Boisselle tunnellers – mainly professional miners – would have been quite different. Instead of positive pressure BA they would have used the Siebe Gorman Proto, an oxygen-regeneration self-contained system that had been first invented by the company in the late 1800s for the purpose of mines rescue.

La Boisselle Study Group team members expect to find a veritable time capsule in the 5km of tunnels. Graffiti, poetry, artefacts, and unexploded ordnance have already been found.  The team's research has established that 38 British and French miners were lost beyond recovery in tunnels collapsed by German explosions. However, there is no possibility of reaching or disturbing them: if there was the team would not have attempted to enter the tunnels. The remains of French soldiers have been found on the surface and reburied by the authorities.

The state of the tunnels at the 80-foot level is ‘absolutely incredible’, says Kevin, with very little chalk having dropped off the roof. Similarly, still in place are parts of a wooden tramway system used to transport chalk out to the shaft, and then outside.

‘I thought I was prepared for what I would encounter,’ remembers Kevin. ‘I worked for 20 years as a miner in the Durham coal mines, and was in the Fire Service and the BA industry. What fazed me was what these boys and men actually achieved with very simple tools. They were tunnelling 120-140 feet underground, in pitch black, and in some areas the enemy was only 4m way in another tunnel, with listening devices. In some cases they were digging with their bare hands so as not to make any noise.

‘Man-to-man combat in tunnels that were just 2ft wide by 2ft high also took place. When they encountered a soldier in the pitch black, the only way to know if they were the enemy was by putting their hands on their shoulders – because German soldiers wore epaulettes. The knives they used would be strapped to their wrists, because they could lose their lives if they dropped them and couldn’t find them again.’

Historians and archaeologists from Britain, France and Germany are working to achieve the long-term preservation of the area. The Project owes much to the Lejeune family, who has owned the land since the 1920s, and which decided to open up the land for study in 2011 following a visit to a nearby site in Mametz. Please note that this project is solely funded by donations to the study group.

For more information about La Boisselle Study Group, or to make a donation, visit: www.laboisselleproject.com/


Siebe Gorman makes a comeback

Since its formation in 1816 Siebe Gorman has been synonymous with breathing apparatus.

Siebe Gorman developed a number of products and is particularly well known for the development of the closed diving helmet. This diving helmet revolutionised underwater work following its development in the 1830’s.

After the Second World War, Siebe Gorman developed equipment for mining, such as the famous Proto set.

Moving into the 21st century, Siebe Gorman was acquired by John Harvey who has relocated its production centre to Malaysia, from where it manufactures apparatus for use in military, civilian and industrial applications around the world.

Since purchasing the company John Harvey has spent the past few years acquiring the intellectual property developed by Siebe Gorman over nearly 200 years of trading. John has declared his intent to re-establish Siebe Gorman as one of the major companies in respiratory protection. John who has a production background is currently looking at all aspects of the manufacturing process with a view to making Siebe Gorman one of the most efficient companies in the manufacture of breathing apparatus.

As part of his master plan John has recruited a number of key personnel all of whom share his vision. One of these key personnel is Andy Morrison who is the International Sales Co-ordinator. Andy has many years experience in the respiratory protection industry and prior to that was an active firefighter. Andy is working with new and existing customers to increase the market share of the Siebe Gorman brand and is pleased with progress following significant sales to the military and petrochemical companies.

Crucial to growth is the company’s commitment to research and development. Siebe Gorman has established a new R&D facility this facility effort will concentrate on improving existing products and the development of a number of new products, using new materials and state of the art production processes.

When asked about new products Andy was reluctant to divulge details but simply stated: ‘We have some exciting developments underway and whilst we will be pushing the technology we have no intention of tarnishing our well deserved reputation for reliability and long service life, a reputation that has been gained over nearly two hundred years of trading.’ Andy ended by saying: ‘watch this space’.

  • Operation Florian

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