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Thursday, 26 October, 2000, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
World War I hospital unearthed
British troops on the Somme, 1916
Field hospitals were swamped with casualties
By Jon Sopel in Arras

Workmen were laying a gas pipeline on a street in Arras, northern France, when they came across a flight of stairs going deep under the ground.

Arras street
The warren of tunnels was found under this street in Arras

A tunnel carved into the chalk led to a British World War I field hospital. It had lain undiscovered since it was abandoned in 1917.

A network of caves was built to take in 700 casualties, and was just 800 metres from the German frontline.

A French archaeologist, Alain Jacques, says everything has remained as it was - including the operating theatre.

"We found bullets, helmets, bombs, artefacts," he said.

sign on cave wall
The walls are marked with stencilled signs and graffiti

There are also poignant graffiti messages scrawled on the walls.

The debris of war includes part of a stretcher, a cigarette box, a tin of sardines, an old shovel.

The hospital was in service for just three days, before a German shell hit the roof so the walls collapsed. Everybody was evacuated safely.

tin of sardines and other debris
A tin of sardines: The hospital was abandoned in a hurry

But they did not have enough time to take their possessions.

So as you look around, you find things like a cap badge from the Royal Army Medical Corps, and a rather decayed and fragile Tommy's helmet.

Buried and untouched for 83 years, it feels like going into other age.

Horrifying as it was, the subterranean hospital was preferable to what was happening in the trenches a short distance away.

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10 Nov 98 | World War I
The war to end all wars
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