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Remembered Today:

Buried alive !

Chris Boonzaier

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Being buried alive in a bunker is a theme that is found in German WW1 literature quite often.

From what I can see, mainly in passages dealing with the Somme.

Am I right in thinking that this is mainly to do with the Somme deep bunkers? Flanders being more pillboxes and above ground defences, Verdun also has many a buried alive story.

On the allied side less so it seems, maybe because they did not have the deep stollen?

All the best


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Did I read somewhere about the fate of German troops in concrete bunkers which were destabilised by shellfire? Something about the pill boxes tilting resulting in their entrances/exits sinking into the mud and thus trapping the occupants?

Forgive me if I'm wrong ...


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I have read one account of that, the bunker tipping and the pioniers racing to dig the occupants out, but there not being enough time.

Are there any British or French accounts of this happening?

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This is a very, very rough translation of a description written by a German soldier.

He arrived in the Somme 2 weeks after his 17th birthday. Arriving in the afternoon he given a bed in an empty bunker. By that evening he was buried...

Suddenly I feel a thud and sit up. My bed breaks and I fight through a tangle of blanket, overcoat and straw mattress, cutting my hand as I get up.

There is a howling outside, getting stronger and stronger, it increases steadily, punctuated by explosions.

Although I cannot see anything, I am under the impression that all around me things are moving. Somethings falls from the ceiling and hits me on the head, I get up and make for the door but stumble over my chest. Another howl and an explosion..everything around me shakes...

Outside the night is pitch black.

Somewhere in the distance there is a flickering of muzzle flashes, a crash of thunder followed by a howling and a humming. I jump backwards, I have never felt so alone in my life.

Somewhere there are voices, they are drowned by another series of crashes.

From somewhere comes a scream, enough to shake one to the core.

I have never heard a scream like it, a scream that will not stop and is only momentarily drowned out by the crashes and explosions.

I crouch in the deepest recess of the bunker not daring to lift my head. My teeth are chattering and I shut my eyes although it is dark.

When I hear the whizz I cover my face with my hands, and take them away again as soon as the shell has burst.

I ball my fists, I know I am scared, damned scared. I say to myself that there is no force in the world that can move me out of my corner.

Again and again I crunch myself up, each time it seems the world around me is moving. A big explosion sends something flying through the door.

I cower in my corner and shiver.

Good God! Will it ever end.. It seems as if I have been in my corner for years. Yesterday and before seems to be so long ago.

A howl grows louder, gets closer and closer.

My eyes are wild and starring, my nails dig into my flesh.

An undescribable crash and everything around me disintegrates. My tongue is thick with dust and dirt, the air is sticky,oppresive.

The roaring has gotten weaker, the terrible screaming hs stopped, the tide has gone back. It is dark.

I feel sick. I am scared.

The deathly silence shocks me. I am beyond comprehending anything, my mind is a mess. Maybe it didnt happen, maybe it was just a terrible dream. I shake myself, must wake up. I frantically try to see the entrance, there must be some light.

But everything remains dark, remains quiet.

Fetch your lamp I say to myself.

I try and stand but hit my head. Now I am crawling on all fours. My backpack should be there. My hands touch wood, then cloth, then wire then cloth again.

I stop crawling and listen. I hear and see nothing. Carefully I crawl forward.

Splintered wood, stone, earth and iron.

I cannot find my pack, but I must be near the exit. Damn, I hit my head again.

The door must be there. Wood, earth and stone..all over the same. Splintered wood, stone and earth. Cloth and wire. I tear my hands open.

I have crawlwed all thwe around...no exit!

I am overcome with blind panic.

My whole being tries to deny the reality of my situation.

,,No exit! Impossible! Impossible !,, I shout aloud and the sound of my voice makes me jump ,,Like a rat in a trap,..no!,,.

I feel my way around again, walls, splintered wood and earth. Always the same.

I shout, scream. Total silence.

It is no use, I am buried. I try and fight the thought.

The air is bad,I have to cough. I have sand in my mouth and need to vomit.

I start to dig, wildly, in all directions. I tear my hands on the splinters, furiously I scratch und dig. It is no use, the earth tickels back.

Gathering my force I push against the walls, I flail at them with my fists until the pain makes me stop. I throw myself against the wall with all my weight. Sand and dust fall on me.

I try digging with a wooden board but get nowhere, my gums are getting drier and my nose is blocked with dust.

I sat there, slowly it dawned on me, I had been buried alive on my first day in the field.

I had not even felt as if I was at the front. I had imagined it much differently, more heroic, as people spoke of it back home.

But this is much different, this is no heros death , ,,Hurrahs,, and eager deeds. This was simply snuffing it, like an animal.

When I marched out, it seems like years ago, I had a little fear for the unknown, for the future. Now I know, that was it, my war and my life, both over.

I begin to pray, more earnestly than ever before.

I think of my mother and my 17 years and begin to cry.

Then I pull myself together, this will not do! I must do something, I must get out of here, it is crazy to sit here crying.

I begin to dig again, shouting, screaming at the top of my lungs.

There is a deadly silence around me. Desperately I pound the walls with my fists again, bringing more dirt down on me.

Have they forgotten me.. are they also buried somewhere under the ground..have they been blown to pieces..is it really the end..It looks to be that way.

I went directly from home, into the grave. If I had left a day later I would still be sitting on the train.

Hours pass.. or is it years..

I breathe shallowly, fighting for breath.

And so pass the last few hours of my young life. I feel no bitterness, just astonishment. Astonishment at how easuily fate grabs me and how powerless I am to fight it.

Suddenly my reverie is broken...was that a noise..

I listen tensely.

Yes! Digging!

I call out, shout, as loud as I can.

I listen again, the digging sound is clearer. There is a knocking sound.......

It takes a long while for them to dig me free, then the light shines in, forcing me to close my eyes tightly. Someone grabs my shoulder, it is the Leutnat.,, So Junker, back with us again...,,

He pulls me upwards, other hands helping him. I gulp the fresh air...

There is the Wachtmeister, and Heller, and Beermann and a sea of unknown faces.

,,You need a stiff drink,, says the leutnant clapping me on the shoulder again.

,, Feeling a bit shaken?,, The Wachtmeister asks, ,, not a very nice welcome to the front..,,

"it was no big deal" I said, trying to control my voice. Why should I let them know how scared I was. At the same time I felt ashamed for lying....

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I find many references to being buried in letters from men of the 1/5 South Lancs written during Second Ypres. However, they usually refer to having the sides of trenches blown in on them, although collapsed dug-outs do get a mention here and there.

An unnamed NCO, writing in early May 1915:

Poor Captain Stannard was buried in his dug-out.  Sergeant-Major Gillon, who was with him, had his leg injured.

Gillon, in fact, had his leg shattered, and died a few days later.

Capt. MacPhail had his ribs crushed when the sides of his trench collapsed, and Lt MacPhail had to be dug out from the earth in similar circumstances.

Sgt Shufflebotham, 7h May 1915:

I have had a breakdown owing to the heavy shellfire during the last few days in which I am very sorry to report that our battalion has lost close on 180 killed and wounded...In some cases they have been buried alive, and in others blown to pieces. I am being sent down to the base for a rest, and I trust to get right in health again before long.

The Germans used gas again.

L/Cpl FJ Appleton records in a letter home that a 'Jack Johnson' shell caused a trench to cave in, burying him until his mates dug him out.

Sgt Ellis, in a letter to Cllr Waring:

I don't think there was a man in the battalion but what got buried at one point or another.

CSM F Smith was awarded the DCM for rescuing seven soldiers buried after a shell exploded.

Burial seems to have been a common fate, and as you can see, is mentioned quite often. However, perhaps the precise nature of the foreboding varies with the cirumstance: it is one thing to be in a trench, open to the elements, knowing that a shell could cause a collapse at any second, but perhaps another to remain entirely below ground in a dug-out during a prolonged bombardment.


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This is a very, very rough translation of a description written by a German soldier.

He arrived in the Somme 2 weeks after his 17th birthday. Arriving in the afternoon he given a bed in an empty bunker. By that evening he was buried...

This is a very vivid and terrifying account, Chris. So are Ste's. What a fate.


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"Being buried alive"

that happened to my great-uncle Wilhelm Plesker at the Verdun front. A trench collapsed due to artillery-fire and he was buried alive under sand-bags and earth. I can't imagine (and somehow I do not want to) what that must have been like...

Fortunately he got dug out again, but was somehow traumatized for life and lost part of his capability to speak properly. Though not killed he certainly was a victim of these dreadful circumstances in trench-warfare and suffered his whole life after the war till he died in the 1960s.

Best wishes


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2nd July 1916 - Ficheux

From the War Diary of the 9th King's Liverpool Regt. 55th Division:

"Weather fine. During the morning the enemy shelled our front and Support lines. He appeared to be registering with 5.9s. At 1 p.m. he commenced to bombard our front and Support lines between Ash St. and Clean St. with 5.9s and 4.2s doing considerable damage to our Wire & Trenches & continued until 2.35 p.m. At 3.10 p.m. he commenced a rapid rate of fire on the same portion of our trenches which lasted until 4.10 p.m. After an interval of 20 minutes he commenced again and continued until 5.3 p.m. Three dugouts were blown in (one being a mined dugout) 34 men were buried. Work was carried on at these dugouts until 4.15 a.m. the following morning, when all the men alive had been rescued, 9 of these being wounded. 7 bodies were left in but these were recovered the following night."

I'm sure that this was quite a common incident. I suppose the carnage on the surface was worse than living with the threat of being buried alive. For me that puts the sheer terror of life in the front line into ghastly perspective.


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I read an account where some British or it may have been French troops were trapped in a dugout. It took them many hours to dig themselves out, only to find that the Germans had captured the trench in the meantime.

Also I have seen footage, were British troops are comeing out of a dugout after being trapped in it, not sure if this was staged ?

The stretcher-bearers of "C" Coy 1/K.S.L.I. were trapped in their dug-out in Auchonvillers on 25th August 1916, one officer and three other ranks worked gallantly under heavy shell fire to free those imprisoned. Just one of many such stories.


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On the 19th of july 1915 a British mine exploded under the German front line of Hooge. Here's the story of a German soldier who made it back to his lines ten days later. Extract from the regimental CO's diary (Infanterie-Regiment nr. 126):

" At the evening of the 29th, the 17 years old war-volunteer Corporal Borst of the telephone-unit of our regiment, made it back to us. Ten days before, when the British fired their mine, His dug-out got buried, after the other occupants went on a patrol to check the telephone wire. However, he managed to dig his way towards the trench, which had also partly collapsed. Having made it to the surface, he almost ran into English sentries, and hid in his dugout again. He was lucky to find three pieces of bread in the dug-out, which he cut into small rations. He drank the watter from the bottom of his dug-out, more mud than wather. So he waited from day to day, under constant danger from shells and hand-granates that exploded in the area, and under the danger of being buried again. A piece of wood, in which he carved a line each day, acted as a calendar. At the evening of the 10th day, a short absence of the sentries gave him the opportunity to crawl back to our lines. We took the brave little corporal to our regiment HQ and gave him a good meal."

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Some Gallipoli examples:

Sappers Edward Albert George ROGASCH and William WEEKES were buried alive when Turks exploded a mine at 'The Pimple', Lone Pine, Anzac, burying them in a tunnel.

The official history states:

'At 6:30 p.m. on June 29th, when the parties from these two workings [offensive tunnels B5 and B6] had retired for their tea, leaving only two engineers listening, the Turks exploded two mines, one near the head of each tunnel. A tapping had been continually heard, and it was therefore concluded that the enemy was still picking and was not yet charging his mines. It was afterwards realised that this 'knocking' sound, which the Australian minners were at that stage only beginning to distinguish from true 'picking', had been produced by an artifice, and that the tamping and charging of the Turkish mine had been carried out under cover of it. The two listeners, Sappers Weekes and Rogasch, were buried.'

Sapper Weekes's body was dug out, but the caved-in listening post became Rogasch's permanent grave.

A number of men, including a doctor, Captain F M Johnson, AAMC, were buried alive when heavy artillery fired on the Lone Pine position on 29th November 1915:

'These deep saps and shallow tunnels had always given excellent protection against bullets and field-artillery; now that they were bombarded by heavy guns, they proved merely a dangerous trap. The sides and roofs were blown in, burying members of the garrison. In the 24th Battalion fourteen men were thus suffocated. The divisional sanitary officer, Major Miller Johnson, who had been inspecting the Pine when the bombardment started, and who had at once established an improvised aid-post, was smothered, along with the men whom he was tending.'

Lieutenant Leslie Richard HARTLAND, 8th Bn AIF, was buried alive at Anzac on 26 July 1915:

'Several more big shells (proved to be from trench mortar) in trenches and near here during the night. Captain Harltand buried alive under parapet, and had succumbed to shock when dug out. Trench mortar reported put out of action by our artillery.' (Diary, John Gibson Pitt, 8th Battalion).

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Guest Jedpaul

Signaller Harney 9 Battalion AIF relates his experiences in Harney's War, an audio tape & book for the ABC.

He admits to compelling himself to fall asleep when particularly frightened. As a runner waiting at HQ during a particularly heavy bombardment he awoke to the deathly silence that confirmed his entombment. A considerable time later he heard a distant digging and assisted his rescuers with appropriate signals etc. Finally an opening was made sufficient for him to shake hands with his best mates.

On eventual release he was surprised to find that they were virtually strangers to him. One asked him for confirmation that he was in fact in the HQ dugout. They were not unduly concerned with the sad demise of Harney's companions but continued digging until their true objective was located. On a recent visit one of the diggers had noticed the SRD jars in a small alcove.

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Signaller Harney 9 Battalion AIF relates his experiences in Harney's War, an audio tape & book for the ABC.

. On a recent visit one of the diggers had noticed the SRD jars in a small alcove.

SRD jars?


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'SRD Jars' are large brown earthenware containers rather like large versions of old stone hotwater bottles, which contained the rum ration. Shards from broken rum jars litter certain battlefields, especialy Gully Ravine at Gallipoli, where the trail of jar fragments and dessicated bones marks the route up to the front line. The letters SRD stand for 'Special Ration Department', though naturally there were numerous soldiers' versions of the meaning of the letters - Seldom Reaches Destination being one well-known one.


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The letters SRD stand for 'Special Ration Department'

Sorry, but the correct answer is Supply Reserve Depot - nothing more, nothing less.

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Yes your version sounds much more convincing: It's an altogether more dessicated sort of title and therefore rather more military. I cannot remember where I came across the 'Special' idea, but I stand corrected. You live and learn!


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