Thursday, 23 February 2012

German soldiers preserved in World War I shelter discovered after nearly 100 years

Preserved timbers that formed the walls of the tunnel where the soldiers were buried Photo: BNPS

Twenty-one German soldiers entombed in a perfectly preserved World War One shelter have been discovered 94 years after they were killed.

The men were part of a larger group of 34 who were buried alive when an Allied shell exploded above the tunnel in 1918 causing it to cave in.

Thirteen bodies were recovered from the underground shelter but the remaining men had to be left under a mountain of mud as it was too dangerous to retrieve them.

Nearly a century later French archaeologists stumbled upon the mass grave on the former Western Front during excavation work for a road building project.

Many of the skeletal remains were found in the same positions the men had been in at the time of the collapse, prompting experts to liken the scene to Pompeii.

A number of the soldiers were discovered sitting upright on a bench, one was lying in his bed and another was in the foetal position having been thrown down a flight of stairs.

As well as the bodies, poignant personal effects such as boots, helmets, weapons, wine bottles, spectacles, wallets, pipes, cigarette cases and pocket books were also found.

Even the skeleton of a goat was found, assumed to be a source of fresh milk for the soldiers.

Archaeologists believe the items were so well preserved because hardly any air, water or lights had penetrated the trench.

The 300ft long tunnel was located 18ft beneath the surface near the small town of Carspach in the Alsace region in France.

Michael Landolt, the archaeologist leading the dig, said: "It's a bit like Pompeii.

"Everything collapsed in seconds and is just the way it was at the time.

"Here, as in Pompeii, we found the bodies as they were at the moment of their death.

"Some of the men were found in sitting positions on a bench, others lying down. One was projected down a flight of wooden stairs and was found in a foetal position.

"The collapsed shelter was filled with soil. The items were very well preserved because of the absence of air and light and water.

"Metal objects were rusty, wood was in good condition and we found some pages of newspapers that were still readable.

"Leather was in good condition as well, still supple.

"The items will be taken to a laboratory, cleaned and examined."

Archaeologists also uncovered the wooden sides, floors and stairways of the shelter that

The dead soldiers were part of the 6th Company, 94th Reserve Infantry Regiment.

Their names are all known. They include Musketeer Martin Heidrich, 20, Private Harry Bierkamp, 22, and Lieutenant August Hutten, 37.

Their names are inscribed on a memorial in the nearby German war cemetery of Illfurth.

The bodies have been handed over to the German War Graves Commission but unless relatives can be found and they request the remains to be repatriated, it is planned that the men will be buried at Illfurth.

The underground tunnel was big enough to shelter 500 men and had 16 exits.

It would have been equipped with heating, telephone connections, electricity, beds and a pipe to pump out water.

The French attacked the shelter on March 18, 1918 with aerial mines that penetrated the ground and blasted in the side wall of the shelter in two points.

It is estimated that over 165,000 Commonwealth soldiers are still unaccounted for on the Western Front.

Reproduced from an article in the Daily Telegraph

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Friday, 10 February 2012

Obituary - Joe Ekins

Joe Ekins during the War

Joe in recent years

Joe Ekins was a typical British soldier of the 2nd World War. Basically a civilian in uniform with a healthy disdain for authority and privilege, combined with a total disdain for the values and extremism of his enemy. He was certainly a reluctant soldier although he had no compunction about volunteering for service, he saw his war very much in terms of good versus evil.

For many years in deepest Northamptonshire his amazing exploits during those famous 12 minutes in Normandy in 1944 were hardly the topic of conversation, and Joe was not one to re-live the past. His pastime of teaching judo and latterly his prominent role in the sports administration, along with his family, were his main concern.

However in recent years, as military history became more popular many historians and others have beaten a path to his modest door in Rushden. At last Joe was prepared to tell his story. Never for glory and never for fame. Many believe he was the man that fired the fatal shot that killed the famous Nazi tank commander, Michael Wittmann, but Joe was not interested in the claim. Unlike thousands of military historians Joe cared not if he were the man who could make the claim. He was just not interested, as he said they were all Nazis and he was doing what he was ordered, to get the war finished.

The Wittmann claim is a cause celebre but of far more interest was the fact that a 'shoe operative', actually a cobbler, from Northamptonshire, fired two practice rounds on the Normandy beaches, and then three rounds in action in twelve minutes. Of those three rounds every one destroyed the supposedly unstoppable German tiger tank. Actually, the British Firefly, a Sherman with a 17 pounder gun fitted, was a match for anything on the battlefield.

The film “Ekins versus Wittmann” goes some way to proving Joe’s part in the death of Wittmann, but to the man himself the question was irrelevant and the answer not worth considering. This British soldier just wanted to get the thing over and done with and get home to what he loved and fought for. Noble sentiments indeed.

He modestly thought himself quite a good gun aimer with his regiment The Northamptonshire Yeomanry, especially so after this famous exploit, but his opinion of the chain of command was confirmed when after the action he was made radio operator for the rest of the war.