nery retreat monsPen and Sword Digital 2014
100 minutes

One in the series of DVDs that Pen and Sword have put together to explain to the casual and expert battlefield student, events as they unfolded at specific flash points in Belgium and France in the opening stages of The Great War.

Battlefield guides and historians have been brought together to describe and explain what happened and where, with most of the narration from the locations as they are today, which provides an excellent feel for the topography of the locations where specific actions took place. This overcomes the problem of there being a dearth of photographs and film footage from the time, breaks up the narrative, avoids being vapid and leaves the viewer with a better understanding of a time when the clashes with German forces were ones of manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre; these manoeuvres and the main leaders involved (von Kluck, Smith-Dorrien, Maxse, Haig) are covered adequately. The interpretations by the guides and historians are clear and concise, and the interspersion of maps is cleverly calculated to assist in a visual understanding of events such as Mons and Le Cateau.

Interwoven with the narration, re-enactors representing the British "Tommy" have been filmed in 'action' and also help to explain their equipment (for example the Lee Enfield rifle, and also why the wire was removed from flat caps – the tops reflected the sun and gave away your position). The crucial role of the RFC is also covered, as the British struggled to understand from where the Germans were advancing. The provision by British cavalry of a screen as the PBI withdrew is emphasised too, as well as the British 'moral ascendency' over German cavalry. The Royal Horse Artillery Victoria Crosses at Nery are also covered in detail.
The Bonus section provides information on the Schlieffen Plan.

Reviewed by Richard Pursehouse


O sector vimy ridgeThe Durand Group/Fougasse Films

Duration 96 minutes (additional CD ROM folder over an hour)

Published April 2007

Although this film and CD Rom of additional graphics was first released in time for the 90th Anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge in April 2007, the content has not lost much of its dramatic impact. The graphics may today seem a little simplistic, but this helps the viewer understand the complex subject matter and keep up with events as they unfold.

The actual subject matter is two tunnels in the Vimy sector, originally dug by British Sappers in 1916. The research at the National Archives, uncovering diaries, maps, plans and photographs, eventually led to initial exploration as early as 1996 until finally excavation began in earnest in 2005. The film focuses on the work in one tunnel to determine whether a camouflet had prevented the explosives being detonated. The chalky tunnel is eventually broken through to, and a cornucopia of items is found – sacks of black crumbly ammonal, still in good condition, rubber air tubes, detonators, and even graffiti (the three dimension 'T' for tunnelers being especially poignant) including names and Army numbers of those who found themselves in the chthonic world, where every sense was heightened to detect the merest implication of the enemy nearby.

Some of the issues or problems encountered are covered – such as the further into the filled in tunnel the larger the pieces of chalk, which meant the portable conveyor belts began to struggle – until a solution in the form of sandbags was introduced. Also, to provide air to those working some ten plus metres below ground (a bore hole which was hooked up to a motor driven air supply along with a telephone cable). As the mine had not exploded in 1917, the group decided to neutralise the decaying explosive by "one man risk" protocol – in summary one man defusing the charges on his own. Tense minutes indeed.

The narration is clear, succinct and balances providing information with allowing the viewer to take in the amount of information (visually and audibly). Fittingly, the whole film is dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Colonel Mike Watkins, who was killed attempting to create an entrance to the tunnels in 1998.

Reviewed by Richard Pursehouse


First Avenue Operation Beaumont HamelThe Durand Group, 2005, DVD 45 minutes

As this DVD demonstrates, military historians of the First World War have the responsibility of explaining the past to the present, interpreting the legacy of that past and helping others to understand what was involved – not just on the surface of the battlefield but sometimes far beneath.

The Durand Group – whose motto is Ubique Sub Terra (Everywhere Underground) – takes its name from the Durand mine situated below the Vimy Ridge Memorial site in Northern France. This mine was investigated in 1998 by a team of volunteers led by Lt Colonel Phillip Robinson, a British Army Royal Engineer. Inspired by this work, the team formed the Durand Group - a "fraternal work together to further research and investigate military-related subterranean features" of the war underground, and particularly the 2,000 miles of tunnels under the Western Front.

"First Avenue" is a record of the Durand Group's investigation of one of those tunnels, a shallow tunnel uncovered when a hole appeared in a field near to the Newfoundland Regiment Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel in January 2002. Named "First Avenue" after the trench from which it ran, this tunnel had the potential of leading to a number of mortar emplacements and to a longer tunnel running under No Man's Land towards the German front line, attacked by the British during the Somme offensive of 1916.

This DVD of the dig is well illustrated with clear maps and diagrams. The basic detail of the historical background is carefully explained. The camerawork gives a real close-up to the gruelling work of excavation and although the sound recording is raw in places, the very roughness adds to its authenticity.

On the same DVD, an accompanying video profile gives an outline of the work of the Durand Group. Here the hazards of underground exploration are made dramatically clear, including the dangers of unexploded munitions and biological contamination. On the Western Front, the First World War has left a legacy of an estimated 63 million artillery shells, grenades and heavy mortar bombs still lying unexploded. At least a quarter of a million of these are chemical. Under the old battlefields, 100 dormant mines remain undetonated and abandoned. Every year in France and Belgium several people are killed handling rusty relics.

The final section of this informative DVD shows Durand's exploration of surface and subterranean systems going together with the less glamorous, but very necessary work, of artefact recovery and evidence recording.

Reviewed by Richard Benefer


durrandP73G3/ST19-21 Vimy Ridge (DVD), The Durand Group, 2009

97 minutes with additional features of:

  • Durand Group report on their work at Vimy Ridge
  • War Diary of 172nd Tunnelling Company, RE
  • Durand Group background information

I found this DVD to be compelling viewing and the Durand Group and its members are to be congratulated for the battlefield archaeology and exploration they are undertaking. This is not a DVD telling the story of a campaign, battle, or prominent soldier. It does not detail the unit history of a tunnelling company, although the 172nd Tunnelling Company RE does feature, as does one of their officers, Captain Richard Brown Brisco. There is no sensationalism to be found here. What is to be found is a video diary of events surrounding the excavation and exploration of two tunnel complexes, one British and one German, in a very specific corner of the Vimy Ridge battlefield. It is a detailed step by step record of the group's activities over a ten year period. The story is illustrated by the use of First World War aerial photographs, maps, computer graphics of the tunnels and through the ongoing comments of the Durand Group members as they go about their work inside and outside of the tunnels. While some may find the pace a little slow, I found the straightforward description of the work undertaken to be of great interest and believe serious students of the First World War will as well.

The video diary begins in 1998 when a team from the Durand Group enters the British tunnel P73G3 in the La Folie (P) mining sector of Vimy Ridge to neutralize an unexploded 600lb Camouflet charge. They complete this work the following year. This charge is just meters from a German tunnel known as ST19. ST 19 is part of a self-contained tunnel complex driven forward from the German second line. There are three entrances to this tunnel complex ST19, 20 and 21. Over the years Durand Group members repeatedly return to continue their work at Vimy, but the greatest part of the DVD is devoted to their attempts to enter the German tunnel complex followed by their exploration of it.

Beginning in May 2003 a concerted effort commenced to enter ST 20 and 21. One team sought to locate the entrance to ST21 through Washing Machine Crater. This is the second largest crater on Vimy Ridge, and was blown by the Germans in June 1916 to support an attack against the French. It received its name from Durand Group founder Lt Col Phillip Robinson due to a smashed up household appliance that had at some point been dumped there. The fact that the appliance was subsequently found to be a stove has quite rightly not resulted in a name change. A second group sought access to ST20 by cutting down through its roof. Both attempts proved unsuccessful, although during the excavations the remains of two soldiers were discovered. The endeavours of the Durand Group are not solely wrapped up in the exploration of First World War tunnels. They are based on the proper application of archaeological techniques and, most importantly, respect for human dignity. Not only were the soldiers' remains carefully and respectfully excavated, but all the artifacts found with them were catalogued and cleaned prior to being turned over to the Canadian authorities. The rosary found with the remains of one of the men was particularly compelling. "Painstaking and rewarding" was a comment from one of the group members.

During the 2003 excavations no attempt was made to find the entrance to ST19 as its precise location was unclear. However the following year Canadian authorities cleared the secondary vegetation from an area of 100 square meters in which the entrance to ST19 was situated. French démineurs swept and cleared the area to a depth of 18 inches. The scale of detritus, including 384 items of unexploded ordnance, was truly amazing. Durand Group experts were available for what would be found at deeper levels.

There is a strong component of detective work in the labours of the Durand Group members. After consulting aerial photographs, Great War maps and completing a survey of the recently cleared area, group members found that the German and British records could not be completely reconciled. This was dealt with by placing the British map over the German and then shifting the British map slightly sideways. Things then made a great deal more sense.

In October 2004 the entrance to ST19 was discovered and access was achieved, though initially to ST19 only; no way into ST20 or 21 was found at this time. In addition to telephone wire, a blackened patch on the wall showing where a candle had been situated, ventilation tubing, and writing on the walls giving the tunnel dimensions and dates, tucked into easily accessible locations the team also found Masher grenades. ST19 was very close to the British tunnel P73G3 and the Germans were clearly concerned about a British break in. The close proximity was demonstrated when Durand Group members at the tunnel faces of British P73G3 and German ST19 made loud noise to make themselves heard to those at the other tunnel face. Though muffled they could clearly hear each other. There is a sense of irony here when one contemplates the conditions the Great War miners operated under. They would of course have been working as quietly as possible and all the while fearful of being buried alive by an enemy Camouflet or unwittingly breaking into the other side's chamber.

Although plans showed ST19, 20 and 21 as a self-contained connected unit, as mentioned above, at first a connection could not be found. However, in January 2005 the entrance from ST19 to the other tunnels was located, albeit with a significant blockage. In May 2006 the group excavated the blockage and entered ST20 and 21. As the narrator says, "the result is well worth the wait".

Durand members returned to the German tunnels on three more occasions (October 2006, October 2007 and May 2008). They explored, surveyed, recorded the artifacts found and plotted their positions. They also found evidence of a Camouflet in ST19, but could not find the charge itself. It may have been removed by the Germans themselves at some point. The Durand Group's work in the tunnels ceased in 2008 when Canadian authorities removed tunnel access to all groups pending a policy review.

Returning to the original Camouflet in P73G3, the Durand Group believes it was the work of Lieutenant, later Acting Captain, R.B. Brisco. The British had laid a larger mine in P73G4 and Brisco would have been cognizant of the close proximity ST19 and the consequent danger of a German break in compromising it. P73G4 was blown late in 1916 creating Edmonton Crater.

Brisco is an interesting character. A solicitor by training from Cumbria, he travelled the world gaining mining experience along the way. He served in the Boer War eventually being taken prisoner. After enlisting in the 2nd King Edward's Horse in 1914, he transferred to the 172nd Tunnelling Company. Two months later he won the Military Cross for his role in an underground skirmish after his men broke into a German gallery. He lost his life on April 9, 1917, the first day of the Vimy Ridge offensive, after he led a team from the 172nd Tunnelling Company into the German tunnels to complete a survey and recover any Germans sheltering there. As he was presumably reporting his findings to officers of the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade, he was killed by a shell blast. The activities of Brisco and the 172nd Tunnelling Company are illustrative of the fact that Vimy Ridge was not solely a Canadian offensive and it has been good to see some acceptance of this recently in Canada with the publication of books such as Vimy Ridge; A Canadian Reassessment, edited by Hayes, Iarocci and Bechthold.

This DVD is very good viewing for the serious student. The video of inside the tunnels is of great interest and the information brought to our attention through the comments of the group members as they go about their work is illuminating. For example, I never knew that German tunnels were typically deeper than those of the British. While at first blush this might seem to be a positive, we find that it often took them below the water table and so a great deal of effort was spent on drainage issues.

Sales of Durand Group DVDs helps raise funds to continue this important work and I for one will be seeking out other DVDs they have produced. I include the Durand Group's website address for those looking to find out more about them. This is the first I had heard of them and I'm impressed. 

Review by Paul McNicholls


Serre stollenFougasse Films, The Durand Group 2013

Colour and stereo audio DVD, Duration 54 minutes.

Serre, Stollen 10c is a multi-media DVD report produced by the Durand Group on their work to identify, excavate and explore a German tunnel that first appeared as a crater in a farmer's goat pen in 2008. It is, however, much more than that.

The producers have used film, war diaries and maps from both British and German sources to relate the experiences of the 31st Div, a New Army division of Pals battalions, in their attack on the village of Serre during the Battle of the Somme.

While relating the events that took place underground, it also describes the actions around Serre right up to the Armistice. Both British and German tunnellers had constructed tunnels (Stollen) either as fighting tunnels, listening posts or to counter-mine the enemy tunnels around the German held village of Serre. In addition, the British drove several tunnels forward that were planned to break through to the surface and become trench mortar emplacements to support the infantry as the attack took place.

I would recommend this DVD to anyone who is interested in the war underground, the Pals battalions of the 31st Division or the Somme offensive

Reviewed by David Bailey



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