TRANSFORMED TERRITORIES: MESSENES  -  Saturday September 12th, 2009

“Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”

And with that General Plumer ordered the 19 underground mines beneath the adjacent German trenches to be detonated – each explosive weighing between 18,000kg and 43,000kg. It was 3am June 7th, 1917, and the allies were attempting to capture the Messines Ridge (from which they were under constant German bombardment). The resulting explosions were so large they are said to have been heard as far away as Southern England. Soldiers were found in dugouts over half a mile away, dead, without a mark on them– killed by the shock waves. The craters from the blasts were up to a 100m in diameter and can still be seen today (though most have become unusually deep duck ponds). The resulting battle would be the greatest waste of lives ever seen in a single day of war – the allies alone lost 57,000 men before lunch time.

Mine crater at La Boiselle, shortly after the war. Note that the tunnel entrance seems to still be visible. Via.

It was a post over at Into the Loop, that first made me think of the craters at Messenes. Funny how an eternity of volcanic activity and a spat of violent humanity produce remarkable similar geographic results. The detonation of the mines represented the end of a year-long preparation by General Plumer, who had recruited ex-mine workers from the regular troops, and even searched out retired tunnel experts (some as old as 55) to engage in a subterranean combat zone: the construction of 8km of underground chambers leading under the German front. notes “Occasionally the tunnellers would encounter German counterparts engaged in the same task: underground hand to hand fighting would ensue.”

And yet this was all very covert, both sides attempting to out-manoeuvre each other without alerting the surface soldiers. I had heard, but never really understood, that the First World War was the first truly modern war not just because it was the first total war, but because it was also the first war to exist in three-dimensions of space. That is, not simply as a series of linear advances on a map, but as a complicated arena of underground, under-sea, surface, naval and aerial engagements that implicated all the advances of modernity: industry and technology, speed and transport.

Left: Lochnagar mine as it is today; Right: as it was in 1920.

I always assumed, when reading reports of how military architecture has altered landscape, that the agents of destruction were oblivious to the topographical and environmental impacts they made on the territories around them. But Plumer’s quote shows otherwise, and that while his focus was undoubtedly on the immediate death of his fellow man, he was not incapable of conceiving of a future after the war – possibly even envisioning the chain of wooded depressions, ponds, open fields with unusual crop markings, and volcano-like craters that exist today.

Section via.

The revolutionary in me wants to revive this method as a means to achieving architectural and landscape results: its fairly clear that the legal and democratic processes are now only choking the development of these professions. Rival projects (or even empassioned citizens) should engage each other in subterranean terrorism (all unknown to the bankers and financiers on the city streets above) – each aiming to undermine the other’s structures. Landscapers, denied desired inclines by ubiquitous wheelchair accessibility laws, should tunnel under their own sites and carefully detonate explosives to produce wild and beautiful territories.

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