Minutes before the beginning of the Allied attack on the front line in the Somme on 1 July 1916, nineteen underground mines were set off. Tunnelling had already been well established by this point, and there had been precursors on this part of the front too. Different tunnelling companies were at work at La Boisselle. Lochnagar was the name given to a communication trench where the entrance to the tunnel was located – naming trenches, streets and the like after familiar places in Britain
was customary (cf. e.g. Wellington Quarry
and Delville Wood
). The Lochnagar tunnel was begun in late 1915. In March 1916 the 179th tunnelling company of the Royal Engineers took over and they drove the tunnel from 400 feet (120m) behind the British front lines to close to the German lines at a depth of over 50 feet (16m).
As the tunnellers got closer to the German lines, work had to progress as silently as possible – as the Germans also dug tunnels and listened out for underground activities (cf. Bayernwald
). So the chalky soil was moved by means of bayonets with handles, men worked barefoot and walked on sandbags.
At its end the tunnel split into two parts (Y-shaped) with enlarged chambers at both ends; these were filled with explosives, a total of 60,000 lb (27,000 kg) of ammonal. The mines were some 100 feet (30m) short of being directly underneath the German line, but it was hoped that enough material would be ejected by the explosion to bury German trenches and create a crater and lips of soil providing cover for advancing troops.
The explosives were set off two minutes before Zero Hour at 7.30 a.m. on 1 July. The noise from the explosions is said to have been the loudest man-made bang up to that point. It created a massive crater in the chalk, some 100 feet (30m) deep and over 300 feet (100m) in diameter.
Despite its massive size it was, however, not a great success. The German defence was not significantly disrupted by it and even though the crater did provide cover for British troops that made it this far, they had nowhere to go from there. Many thousands were mowed down by German machine guns, and it is assumed that quite a few fell into Lochnagar crater and remains of those soldiers may well still be buried below today’s ground level. The objective of breaking through the German lines was not achieved. So all those casualties were basically for nothing.
While many other craters were later filled in, Lochnagar crater remained. In 1970 it was purchased by an Englishman and turned into a memorial. The big wooden cross on the rim was erected in 1986. Volunteers look after the site and a number of information panels and memorials have been installed. Every year on 1 July a memorial service is held here
What there is to see: The main thing to see here is of course the massive crater itself. Originally it would have been white chalk, but now it’s covered by grass – only here and there can bits of chalk be seen. It is also no longer quite as deep as it would have been initially
You are not allowed to enter the crater any more, because of erosion, but you can walk the entire circumference. In addition to the memorial cross at the edge of the crater where the approach path first takes you, there are 20 information panels dotted around providing background information about the tunnelling, the battle and several personal stories of people involved. That way the otherwise silent site comes to life a bit.
There are also markers in the wooden walkways that point out the directions to the front lines and the course of the tunnel that led to the mine. When I was there, many wreaths had been placed at various spots. There are also memorial benches, donated by branches of the military, as well as memorials to women, nurses, and particular individuals. In addition there’s a stone from the mountain Lochnagar in the Scottish Highlands (by Balmoral estate) placed here by the RAF
Mountain Rescue Association.
And that is basically it. So it’s a comparatively minor site in terms of commodification
, but this massive hole in the ground left by WW1
has to rank as one of the must-sees when in the region.
Just 0.3 miles (550m) south of the village of La Boisselle in the Somme
region of northern France
, about a ten-minute drive from Albert
Access and costs: easy to get to only by car; free
There is no public transport so you need your own vehicle (or bike). To get here from the nearest town, Albert
, leave the town in a north-easterly direction on the D4929 and then D929. As you get to La Boisselle keep right on the D20 and look for the sign for “La Grande Mine”. Coming from Auchonvillers
, take the D73 to the south-east, turn right on to the D50 and in Aveluy turn left on to the D20.
In La Boisselle take the first turn right, and at the Y-junction keep left on to the dead-end street (the tarmac ends just behind the crater, where the road turns into a farm track unsuitable for normal cars). There are parking spaces by the crater and at normal times it should be no problem to find one – except on special days like 1 July, when the place gets very busy and parking will run out quickly.
Lochnagar Crater is freely accessible at all times, no admission fee is charged (but donations are welcome). The approach to the crater rim has been levelled and should be accessible to wheelchair users with a bit of effort, but beyond that first platform the path along the rim of the crater has several steps. You should stay on this wooden walkway and not descend into the crater. Some of the information panels stand on the grassy slopes outside the crater.
Time required: Between about ten minutes for just a quick walk around the rim, to perhaps half an hour if you want to read all the panels.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Lochnagar Crater is the closest WW1
-related site to the area’s largest town, Albert, where the Somme 1916 Museum
is worth seeing.
Another important WW1 site within easy reach is Thiepval
to the north of the crater. To get there take the D20 to the junction just before Aveluy and turn right on to the D151 which will take you straight there.
Not so far is also Delville Wood
. To get there from the crater turn right in La Boisselle and stay on the D20 to and through Longueval and follow the signs.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
nothing in the immediate vicinity, but see under Albert
and the Somme
as well as under France
- Lochnagar crater 1 - big hole
- Lochnagar crater 2 - sign
- Lochnagar crater 3 - now green and lush
- Lochnagar crater 4 - eroding edge
- Lochnagar crater 5 - commemorative bench
- Lochnagar crater 6 - a bit of information
- Lochnagar crater 7 - near the front line
- Lochnagar crater 8 - wreathes
- Lochnagar crater 9 - looking down