Our documentary, “The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars” will be broadcast at 9pm on BBC Four on Monday 20 May 2013. Written and presented by Peter Barton, the film follows the team as we explore the hidden labyrinth of the tunnel system at the Glory Hole, La Boisselle.
In June 2011 we were joined on site by Eddie Redmayne and Joseph Mawle, the two actors cast to play Stephen Wraysford and Jack Firebrace in the Working Title adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ novel ‘Birdsong’, a book which has come to occupy a permanent and celebrated place in First World War fiction. Filming in Hungary was yet to start.
LBSG member Peter Barton was Historical Consultant for the production. Because much of the film’s action takes place on the Somme battlefields (Beaumont Hamel) he invited the producers to visit La Boisselle to gain an understanding of the environment and conditions faced by tunnellers working beneath the Picardy battlefields. On Eddie and Joseph’s arrival the nature of surface and subterranean warfare at the Glory Hole was explained.
Peter Barton and Simon Jones show Joseph and Eddie the 179 Tunnelling Company mine plan
Peter Barton explaining the mine plans - there are up to eight kilometres of tunnels on site - all dug by hand
Trenches were flagged out, and shafts and inclines marked. Guided by Peter, they then went underground through the crown hole that gave access to the 1915 X Incline. They descended to a depth of about 30 feet, reaching the site of the now celebrated poem written in pencil on the chalk roof:
If in this place you are detained Don’t look around you all in vain But cast your net and you shall find That every cloud is silver lined… Still
We were delighted to show the actors the site and explain some of the difficulties and dangers endured by the tunnellers. The visit was filmed by LBSG member Mike Fox BSC; some of this footage may appear on the Birdsong DVD.
Speaking with Claudie Llewellyn, one of the owners of the Glory Hole
Eddie and Joseph at the collapse providing access to 1915 X Incline
The experience had a powerful influence on both men. In recent interviews Eddie Redmayne revealed that he wrote the poem, which he described as “hope in the most horrific of circumstances”, on the cover of his script as an inspiration for the role, and as a reminder of the tunnellers and their work in the Glory Hole at La Boisselle.
The following articles mention the actors’ visits to La Boisselle in June: