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November 17, 2003

Tunnelling companies

I wanted to write a follow-up to my post about Wipers, that's English for Ypres. I found more ghastiless describing the first poison gas attack in history and a very nearly as noxious plan for a "reality" television program based on life in the trenches (thanks to the reprobates of the BBC). I also found a page describing more of the medieval town itself rather than shedding light on the slang name the British chose for it. The page includes a chilling aside.

The towers from Lille Gate date back to 1395. Under the arch to the left is a doorway which once led to a small museum (active between the wars) and, before that, to luxurious dugouts (all of the ramparts around Ypres were riddled with tunnels). This particular one was used at one time as an HQ for the Canadian Tunnelling Companies.

Canadian Tunnelling Companies? Surely the name could not mean what it suggested. Sure enough, there were a multitude of tunneling companies formed to carry out the medieval end of a spectrum that included everything from horses to mustard gas. I am alarmed at the idea, annoyed I was not taught this stuff in high school and gratified to learn this heroism is not forgotten by everyone. These Companies were active in WWII as well. The Juno Beach Centre honours the role of Canadian military engineers in the liberation of Europe and National Defence has a number of CMHQ Reports available on-line reporting on tunnelling operations in Gibraltar from 1940 to 1942.

And as for Wipers... the town lent its name to The Wipers Times, a rival for Punch in its day. I particularly enjoy this only slightly satirical letter to the editor.

(The Wipers Times, Monday, 6th March 1916 no 3, #1)

To the Editor,
Sir, - Whilst walking along the Rue de Lille the other night, a gentlemen (sic) coming in the opposite direction accosted me quite abruptly with the words “Who are you?” When I told him not to be inquisitive he became quite offensive ,and assumed a threatening attitude. This incident was repeated several times before I had reached the Square. I endeavoured to find a constable, but could not. Where are our police, and what are they doing? Have any more readers had the similar unpleasant experience?
Yours, etc.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at November 17, 2003 10:53 AM


Reminds me of a line in R.H. Thomson's play The Lost Boys, based on the letters of his five great-uncles to their mother during the great war.

One of the letters mentions a cold night spent in a barn gathered around a brazier, and Thomson remarks on this with amazement. "Brazier! It sounds like something out of Henry V!"

Posted by: Paul at November 18, 2003 04:29 PM