By: Wayne A. Selogy
February 23, 2023
“Everyone was calling for water, but it was in vain. Death laughed at its harvest and Death stood guard on the barricade, so nobody could escape. Some raved about rescue, others for water. One comrade lay on the ground next to me and croaked with a breaking voice for someone to load his pistol for him” is how Karl Fiser, one of only three men to be rescued, described the environment inside the Winterbeg tunnel.
In the Spring of 1917, the French launched an offensive to retake land that lay a few miles to the north of the river Aisne, which had been held by German forces for most of World War I. While occupying the territory, the Germans built elaborate tunnels to supply the front lines. The Winterberg tunnel, near the village of Craonne, France, was a 300-meter tunnel used for supply lines, storage, and protective cover from French bombardment. On May 4th, 1917 French forces, aided with intelligence gathered from a surveillance balloon, identified the entrance and exit of the Winterberg Tunnel.
With surprising accuracy, a shell fired from a naval gun landed at the tunnel’s entrance. The shell at the entrance caused German munitions, stored at the base of the tunnel, to explode. The explosion had two devastating impacts: first the munitions explosion caused a cloud of poisonous gas to waft into the tunnel, and as the noxious fumes drifted deeper into the tunnel the exploded munitions then caused the tunnel entrance to collapse. The French artillery bombardment continued, and a second shell sealed the tunnel’s exit. Hundreds of men were trapped in the 300-meter long Winterberg Tunnel. For six days as oxygen ran out, men either suffocated to death, asked their comrades to shoot them, or died at their own hand. Reports vary as to how many men died in the Winterberg Tunnel. The German State archives say around 150 men perished. Other sources put the figure at nearly 300.
Days after the entrances were sealed, the French took the area, but did not launch a rescue effort. The Germans retook the area later in the war, but time constraints and the chaos of war meant the Germans too chose not to open the tunnel. By wars end no-one knew exactly where the tunnel was, and since there were no French bodies, the French decided to let the bodies lie where they fell.
That all changed when Alain Malinowski rediscovered the tunnel. Malinowski spent his free time combing through the archives in the Château de Vincennes, reading prisoner interrogation documents and reviewing maps. For decades Malinowski had no luck because the landscape the maps plotted was so devastated by the war the maps no longer accurately depicted the landscape. But in 2009 Malinowski stumbled upon a map that depicted two paths crossing, and Malinowski realized that these paths still existed on the ridge in Craonne. Malinowski took great care in measuring out and plotting the angles using the map he had found, and eventually landed on the entrance of the tunnel. Malinowski tried to get French or German authorities to do something for a decade, but he was ignored.
One night in January 2020 Malinowski’s 34-year-old son, fed up with official inaction, rented a mechanical digger, talked some friends into tagging along, and began digging at the spot his father identified as the lost entrance. As the amateur archologists illegally excavated the site, it quickly became apparent Malinowski was right. As they dug, they discovered gas mask canasters, bells used to sound alarm, machine guns, bayonets, a rifle, and rails used to transport munitions.
The renewed attention brought by the father-son team prompted German and French officials to act. The Treaty of Aachen, signed in 2019 between the French and German governments established the Franco-German Council of Ministers as a joint policy making forum committed to cooperation regarding shared war sites. The German War Graves Commission, a representative of the German federal government and tasked with searching for and recovering war dead, with the permission of the French government and under the legal agreements outline in the Treaty of Aachen—began excavating part of the site. The debate raged as to what should be done with the site: some members of the German War Graves Commission wished to see the site undisturbed and become a war memorial, others, like the Malinowski family prefer the bodies of the soldiers be removed from their initial resting place identified, and then reburied with dignity with their comrades.
In February of 2023 the Franco-German Council of ministers announced the site of the Winterberg Tunnel would become a war memorial with cooperation between the French and German governments under the Treaty of Aachen. Construction is set to begin in 2024 to bring the story of the Winterberg Tunnel and the memories of all who died their back into the memories of German, French, and global citizens. As the largest ground war since World War II rages in Ukraine, perhaps the importance of war memorials—and the stories of loss, fear, and despair—is more saliant now than in decades. Over a hundred years ago young men died awful deaths in France and across Europe. Today, young people are dying on the battle fields in Ukraine. How quickly it seems the world forgets.