An Army buried in a field : Archaeology and Folklore
Archaeologists use multiple lines of evidence to understand past societies and conflicts – of which artefacts and relics form just a part. Another important source of information drawn upon is regional oral tradition, especially when that considers the archaeology of more recent periods in history. In our particular case this is the folklore, the inherited memory of the people whose families have lived on the battlefields of the First World War and whose descendants still live there today. Often called mythology, legend or even folktale, these oral traditions can tell us about experiences of those who lived here that may aid in our interpretation of the archaeological record. Though such tales are often vague or exaggerated, and can exist in many versions, they very often tend to hold a certain truth.
When the war was over, people returned home and found their villages, farms and houses in ruins. It took them years to clean up the battlefield, together with military labour parties. War infrastructure was dismantled, battlefield rubble removed and trenches and shell craters filled in. But some features of the battlefield were never removed, sometimes because they were just covered up, hidden from view, and in many cases simply because they were completely underground and thus unknown. And ever since the end of the war, people who lived on the former battlefields would bump into war relics by chance, each time feeding stories about these finds, that are now often nothing more than legends with no known origin or certainty about the truth. This is not different for the village of Wijtschate.
It is known from written sources that underneath the village, the German Army constructed a network of tunnels of which the extent is not fully known. Maps often only indicate the shafts and entrances, but not the tunnels themselves. For over 100 years now, the people from Wijtschate have been living on top of them, voids that have become more and more unstable. It is no surprise, then, that at certain times accidents happened. One story was told to the archaeologists when they were at work on Hill 80 during the initial explorations. One of the neighbours asked if any tunnels were found yet. “Because”, he continued, “Underneath the entire village you can find tunnels from the Great War. Over the years several accidents happened. Once, in one of the bigger houses, the maid was pumping water, when all of a sudden, the ground underneath her feet disappeared and she tumbled down in a 5-metre-deep hole. She didn’t survive the fall.” This tragic folklore tale suggests that the archaeologists might yet find tunnels when they carry out the full excavation of the site. Will it be true? Only time will tell.
A day later, on the other side of the research area, the archaeologists were carefully working on the German mass grave. Some other neighbours noticed the activity on that one spot, and called the head archaeologist in order to question him on the finds, as they had a feeling that bodies were being uncovered. Reluctantly he had to admit that the villagers had guessed correctly, and that the lead archaeologist and his team were indeed uncovering the remains of soldiers from the Great War. An instant later, another neighbour joined the conversation, and was about the discovery. He didn’t look very surprised about that news and replied: “I always knew they were here. I have always been told that an entire army is buried here in this field”. Such is the value of folklore, or tales passed on through generations. And our work at Hill 80 will hope to uncover more stories to be passed on through the years.