A remembrance ceremony, conducted at the very edge of the Lochnagar Crater.

Dead metaphors. Every English student should be aware of them: little zombie bits of language that once had a life all of their own, but now wander near and far, open-mouthed, vacant.

Metaphor, as your English teachers will hopefully have taught you, makes speech and writing vivid. It carries over meanings or concepts from one area of knowledge to another, giving life to the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.

So, to explain, I used a metaphor at the beginning of this article: I compared Dead Metaphors to zombies, speaking about something perhaps a little unfamiliar to you (dead metaphors) in the terms of something more familiar (zombies).

Over time, however, these new figures of speech– these metaphors– themselves become familiar through use. They no longer surprise or delight. The original life of the metaphor seeps away.

Ultimately you’re left with a word or phrase that is either a cliche (“I’m over the moon”, says the footballer without thinking, meaning he is delighted) or something that has become so common or familiar that you don’t even think of it according to its original metaphorical meaning anymore (“can you grasp that?” says the English teacher to her student).

So why the waffle about dead metaphors?

Well, the word ‘undermining’ is a dead metaphor. Today most people don’t think twice about the word when they use it. In everyday speech, of course, it means to secretly weaken someone– but we never think about where the word came from. That’s natural: dead metaphors are everywhere and if we stopped talking every time we used one, we couldn’t hold a conversation.

Once upon a time, however, to talk about one person undermining another person would have been a vivid, threatening use of language.

Undermining, in its original sense, meant to build a mine underneath something– say, a wall– and to use that mine to destroy the object. Mining has been used by the military since ancient times, but undermining became an important military tactic in the middle ages. Besieging armies would build tunnels underneath castle turrets, undermining the foundations of otherwise impregnable towers. They would then build fires (or, later, set off explosives) that would bring the mine down, and the castle walls with it.

That’s what undermining was: the way to secretively bring down a city or citadel. The first time someone said, “he’s undermining her” or “they are undermining us” must have been a striking use of speech. So striking, in fact, that someone listening repeated the metaphor– as did the next person. Or, perhaps, this figure of speech occurred to a number of different people as this frightening technology became more and more familiar to people. Ultimately everyone understood it in its new sense: to secretly weaken another person or thing.

We very often think of the First World War as a war of innovations in technology, of the shock of the new. Yet it is a striking fact that because 1914-18 was a static war of trenches and fortifications, this old military technique of undermining the enemy experienced a grim resurgence.

The Hawthorn Ridge mine, exploding on July 1st, 1916, the same day as the munitions that created the Lochnagar crater. This was the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Today we’re going to take a look at a remarkable and horrifying example of undermining that took place during the First World War.

At the start of the summer it was announced that a new and extensive archaeological dig is to go ahead, mapping what is known today as the Lochnagar Crater. The Lochnagar Crater was created by what was the largest ever mine ever exploded.

The explosion took place on the first day of the Battle of the Somme– July 1st, 1916. The Somme has today become a kind of shorthand for a battle with massive loss of life for little obvious gain. Yet as the Somme began there were high hopes that this was the battle which, after the terrible failures of 1915, would lead to movement on the Western Front. A massive attack was to take place on German lines around the river Somme, in the hope of both breaking through those lines and so relieving pressure on the French army at Verdun.

The attack on the German line near La Boisselle was to be led by three British Brigades, part of the 34th division. Two were ‘Pals’ brigades– the Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish– raised from Irish and Scottish Communities in the North-East. The third, the 101st Brigade, was amalgamation of different companies and regiments that included the Grimsby Pals and other fighting units.

The German trenches had sustained a week of incessant bombardment from British artillery in the run up to the first day of the Somme. This alone was expected to have decimated the German defences and demoralised the soldiers sheltering below. Yet, in addition to this form of attack, the British generals wanted to punch a hole in the German line, and to do this they planned to explode a massive pair of mines beneath the German dug outs. The Royal Engineers were employed to dig beneath and undermine the German defences– setting 27 tons of high explosive to go off before the attack. In fact, 28 Royal Engineers were actually killed when the explosives went off at 7.28 on the morning of the 1st.

The explosion of the mine was devastating. It lifted the French earth and all those sheltering within it in a massive column 1,200 metres into the air. When the air cleared, what was left where the German dug outs had been was a crater 120 metres wide (that is, around twenty metres longer than a football pitch) and 20 metres deep.

You might think that what we today call the ‘shock and awe’ of such a massive explosion would alone result in a British victory in this sector of the battle of the Somme. What followed, in fact, was a disaster for the attacking British troops. The German trenches had been dug deep and those in them had been well sheltered from the hellish bombardment in the week prior. The many German soldiers who had not been killed by the mine explosion simply took their places again in the line once the British artillery ceased (allowing the British soldiers to go ‘over the top’).

The British infantry, doubtless expecting minimal resistance, calmly advanced in long lines– as they had been trained– into devastating machine gun fire. Over 6,000 British soldiers died in the attack for the slightest gain in ground. It is, in its own way, a typical story of the disastrously planned and bloodily fought first day of the Somme.

You can find out about the new archaeological exploration of the site and the hidden tunnels that run warren-like through the area by linking to this BBC Radio 4 Today news report. It’s clear that even those experienced archaeologists who have begun the task of finding the remains of humans and human activites underground are deeply moved by what they’ve found. You can also read an excellent report on the BBC website about the attack, ‘WW1 underground: unearthing the hidden war’, that contains an TV interview within one of the actual tunnels with historian Simon Jones, explaining what life was like as a miner. As a literature student, to get a sense of the claustrophobic horror that an ordinary soldier experienced in tunnels beneath the battlefields, you should read Siegfried Sassoon’s grim poem ‘The Rear Guard’ (found in the Stallworthy anthology if you are an AQA AS student). You can, of course, find my notes for this poem on Move Him Into the Sun: though as the poem is still in copyright, I can’t reproduce the actual text here. The events of Sassoon’s poem take place near Arras, not La Boisselle, but give a flavour of the sense of recoil a non-miner felt about these tunnels far underground.

Today, what came to be known as the Lochnagar crater is now a privately owned memorial that you can visit– and you can find its website here. The website provides shocking footage of a similar mine being let off at the Hawthorn Redoubt (pictured above) and its terrible effects. It’s a chastening lesson in the extreme violence all too common during the First World War. The word ‘undermining’ may never mean quite the same thing again.

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A stone stairway out of the vast network of tunnels dug around the French town of Arras by the Allies.

NOTES
As battle rages above, a soldier moves desperately through a network of tunnels and rooms, encountering the festering corpse of a dead man before eventually escaping the depths.

 

The Rear-Guard (Hindenburg Line, April 1917): The rear-guard is a detachment that protects the rear of a military force. The Hindenburg Line was a series of defences built in North Eastern France, constructed in 1916-17. The German Army retreated to this line of strengthened, deepened concrete trenches and bunkers, set on better defensible ground, in March 1917.  In April 1917 a French assault on the supposedly ‘impregnable’ Hindenburg Line ensued, which the British supported by a diversionary thrust near the French town of Arras. This became the bloody Second Battle of Arras in which 150,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed and in which Sassoon fought with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Sassoon said of his experience at Arras: “The dead bodies lying about the trenches and in the open are beyond description… our shelling of the line— and subsequent bombing, etc— has left a number of mangled Germans— they will haunt me till I die”. Sassoon himself was shot through the throat during the action and it was while recovering from this in Britain that he wrote his ‘Soldier’s Declaration’. The Battle of Arras and the assault on the Hindenburg line had a special horror for Sassoon, then. The poem may seems to be describing an experience in one of the tens of kilometres of allied tunnels dug in the chalky ground beneath and behind no-man’s land before the Battle.

“Groping along the tunnel, step by step”: The poem begins with a sense of struggle as the reader is thrust directly into the action, beginning with the verb, “groping”. With this the reader is made immediately aware of the sense of touch on which the soldier is dependent, and how difficult it is to negotiate the tunnel, “step by step”.

“He winked his prying torch with patching glare”: The darkness in the tunnel is absolute, save for the inadequate light from the soldier’s torch, which acts as a searching eye— winking, prying and glaring. The torch only illuminates in patches, however: the soldier cannot see all around him, adding to the sense of threat.

“sniffed the unwholesome air.”: Denied vision, the sense of smell becomes acute. The lack of vision in this poem becomes symbolic of a lack of rationality that becomes more acute as the poem goes on: the soldier must rely on more direct and possibly irrational senses, like smell and touch. Note the sibilance of “side to side, and sniffed”: suggesting sniffing itself, perhaps, or the serpentine sway of the torch. The air is “unwholesome” perhaps because of lingering gas— or death.

“Tins, boxes, bottles… the mattress from a bed”: The first stanza effectively establishes a subterranean world without light. The second stanza surprises, therefore, with a shift to more familiar and homely objects. The effect here, however, is to create a sense of weird uneasiness, of the familiar appearing strangely. Sigmund Freud called this effect unheimlich (literally, German for ‘unhomely’) and we translate it as the ‘uncanny’: its psychological effect is disconcerting.

“exploring fifty feet below / The rosy gloom of battle overhead”: the extreme depth in which the soldier moves implies an almost absolute removal from the world of the surface and the fighting above, imagined as a “rosy gloom”. Fire lights the smoke of battle, perhaps: but the “rosy gloom” also voices an almost attractive quality to the grim scene above, highlighting the sense of isolation of the soldier. There is a sense that the soldier is exploring a completely ‘other’ realm. The assonance here may also suggest the muffled resonance of the bombs above.

“Tripping, he grabbed the wall”: A return to the use of a verb to begin the line, highlighting a loss of control and again, the desperate dependency of the soldier on touch.

“saw someone lie / Humped at his feet, half hidden…”: The soldier discovers what he takes to be a sleeping man.

“‘God blast your neck!’ (For days he’d had no sleep,)”: the tension that the soldier feels leads to a frustrated outburst: the parenthesis here explains the intense impatience and envy that the soldier feels for the “sleeper” he has discovered. Note, as ever, Sassoon’s assured use of colloquial language.

“Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap…”: The gradual shedding of layers of humanity in the poem so far culminates in the word ‘Savage’: summing up the sense of atavistic disorder the soldier finds himself in. ‘The Rear-Guard’ is in many ways about human beings reverting to a less developed, animalistic, inhuman state: perhaps this is why the poem at times is reminiscent of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, with the time traveler exploring the realm of the degenerate subterranean Morlocks. Loss of vision, rationality, co-ordination and disorder in an underworld hell represent the violent intellectual and moral collapse of the Western world.

“…the livid face / Terribly glaring up…”: a double meaning. ‘Livid’ of course means ‘angry’ but also originally and literally here, ‘black-and-blue’— the colour of bruises. The use of the present continuous— “glaring”— again gives the disconcerting sense that the dead man is dead, yet somehow alive.

“Agony dying hard… And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound”: The man’s face is frozen in a death-mask of horror and agony. “Fists of fingers” returns us again to a repulsive and frightening world of touch, here clutching the festering wound.

“Alone he staggered on…”: This line begins with a state and then moves to the verb, unlike those previous lines already commented on. The prime impression here is then of the soldiers loneliness in the tunnel and his sense of isolation as he stands next to the ten-day old corpse.

“Dawn’s ghost…”: the weak light of dawn is evoked in this supernatural metaphor. It is interesting to note that although this poem stages a classical descent into the underworld or journey into hell, metaphorically speaking the world above is a realm of the supernatural. Part of the bleakness of the poem is that neither upper nor lower realm has any sense of peace or consolation; unrest dominates both spaces, and the world of light, while a relief from darkness, remains troubling.

“…the dazed, muttering creatures underground”: the world below is not populated by human beings but by those reduced to inhuman ‘creatures’; demons, perhaps, or creatures from myth.

“Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.”: again, the use of onomatopoeia here (“boom”, “muffled”) gives a sense of the continuous din coming from the world above.

“…with sweat of horror in his hair,”: a last description that reprises the grim sensuality of the poem, especially that of touch: the soldier is in a cold, fearful sweat and feels this creep over the crown of his head in the stairway draught. The use of alliteration (“horror…hair”) suggests the heavy breath of the soldier.

“He climbed through darkness to the twilight air…”: the gathering purpose of the soldier is emphasised by the second line of the couplet, as the soldier escapes the tunnels and the dark— into the half-light of the world above.

“Unloading hell behind him step by step.”: the final line makes explicit the meaning of the narrative, as a journey into and return from the underworld— like Orpheus in Greek myth, or the Harrowing of Hell in the Christian apocrypha. Hell takes on something of its original religious power here. ‘Hell’ in everyday language or conversation is an abstract idea, a metaphor: “I’ve been through hell”, we say, but this is ultimately a figure of speech. However hell in the world of belief is not a figure of speech but a literal thing, an actual space. In this poem, the soldier makes a journey not into a metaphorical hell, but to a literal, twentieth century hell. “Unloading” conveys the physical relief that climbing out of the tunnel, and so climbing out of that underworld hell, brings. Yet the poem ends, bleakly, where it began: in ponderous movement, ‘step by step’.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘The Rear-Guard’ is most obviously compared and contrasted to Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’, a poem that it may have directly inspired.]

NOTE:

Many thanks to Toni Peacock and her insight into the struggle of the soldier!