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The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars

Mon May 20, 9-10pm, BBC4

The river Somme in northern France was the point at which the German advance toward Paris during WWI was finally halted. Gruesome and paranoid entrenchment set in above ground, but less well-known is the frontier that existed below the surface: both sides used skilled tunnellers to dig deep below enemy lines and lay explosives. Many of the tunnels still exist on the former battlefields and, in this hour-long documentary, the story of the Allied ‘moles’ is captivatingly told by historian Peter Barton.

Though the tunnels are naturally in a precarious state, Barton and crew still gamely descend into one – even chancing upon an elegantly written poem on the face of a rock. The cramped, silent and oxygen-starved working conditions of the tunnellers is evoked skillfully by Barton, whose calm presence on camera is only slightly undermined by a dress sense reminiscent of ‘Crocodile Dundee’.

Despite many of these brave tunnellers joining the army directly from working on Manchester’s sewers, they were considered some of the most important men on the entire Western Front. In this engaging documentary, their story is told without schmaltz or saccharin.