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PART THREE: British Shelters, Dugouts & Bunkers

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Early British Development

From a standing start in 1914, the British had, by 1918, overtaken the other belligerents in standard designs for bunkers. In the Salient, the first recorded British concrete shelter was a machine gun post in August 1915, although the Royal Engineers (RE) of the 2nd Royal Anglesey Regiment, did complete experimental concrete dugouts at Ypres in May 1915. On 1st August 1915, at Wilson’s Farm near St Jan, the 1st London Field Company, RE, later designated 509th Field Company RE, built concrete dugouts for machine gun crews as well as improved the field of fire by thinning hedges.

Linesman Map. Showing location of Wilson Farm Post

War Diary 1st London Field Company, RE

On 14th August 1/2nd West Riding Field Company, RE, they were later designated 57th Field Company RE, built a concrete shelter for a machine gun crew located at Chateau de Trois Tours near Brielen. This is still visible in the wood on private land not accessible to the public.

From 1 to 7 February 1916, at Boesinghe, 62nd Field Company was working in ground where the trenches were breastworks due to the ground water. Their War Dairy records the construction of two concrete machine gun emplacements: ‘Two new MG emplacements constructed off Fargate, one north of Wyatt’s Lane, one south of Wellgate. Covered communications trench to each. Each emplacement made about 6’x6’ - heavy frames – two rows of steel girders opposite ways set in concrete. Loophole with girders and concrete above.

War Diary 62nd Field Company RE

It is worth mentioning that not all the concrete construction work on bunkers was undertaken by the Royal Engineers. The artillery batteries also undertook a lot of work to protect their guns.

In his diary, later published with the title 'The War Diary of the Master of Belhaven', Lt. Col. the Hon. Ralph Gerard Alexander Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, wrote about building gun pits for his battery. The gun pits were sited on the other side of the road from Bedford House. ' I am making four small forts, of tremendous strength, to hold the guns. The walls are nearly finished, and the steps down into the tunnels are finished and roofed over with heavy timber. Each gun-pit is connected with the next one by a subterranean passage, 6 feet deep. The walls of the pits are built up 7 feet above the ground, and are made of from 10 rows of sandbags at the bottom to 3 at the top; over this there is a foot of earth at a slope of about 45 degrees, held up by low hurdles of osiers; and over that heavy turfs, that will have to be picketed down and wired on. The roofs are supported by six pillars, 9 ft. x 6 ft., with three rafters across them of the same thickness. Crossing these are eight 9 ft railway irons, and on top of them the roof of 2-in deal planks. I shall put a layer of sandbags on that, and cover them with a foot to 18 in. of broken bricks, with earth and turfs on top, which will join up with turf slopes of the walls.'

Shelter Development

The men who occupied the front-line trenches required to have shelter from the weather, shell splinters, direct hits from small and large calibre shells. In the early years of the war the troops dug holes in the side of the trenches and covered the entrance with a ground sheet. From 1915, British trench shelters were mainly constructed with an inner lining of prefabricated corrugated steel known as elephant iron, it was also known as tin or steel, and this gave the name to the main style that was constructed the ‘English Large Elephant Steel Shelter’.

Shelter built using Elephant Iron. Authors image.

It was constructed using three sheets of elephant tin, other versions used two sheets, per section and these were bolted together at regular points. These types of shelter also had a layer of soil, bricks, or stones to form what was called a buster layer on top. Sandbags were also used, and, in some shelters, reinforced concrete was used to provide protection against heavy calibre shells. These types of shelters offered the men minimal protection but were not very good at keeping them dry as they flooded.

Many of the British shelters were built principally to provide shelter from artillery or from German bombs and not always to provide shelters for machine gun posts. Many were Battalion headquarters, communication posts, medical posts or for supply and storage dumps in the rear areas. The Royal Engineers, particularly the troops of the Tramways and Foreways Companies, required shelters especially as they worked in the open and were often targets for German shelling. Throughout 1916, which was considered a quiet time in the Salient, although those Canadian troops involved in the actions in June 1916 or British troops in the line at the Bluff or St Eloi, were mining was prevalent, would disagree. The British built observation posts, dug outs, shelters of various types and sizes, concrete machine gun posts, and other shelters along the front line and back areas. Many of the shelters were built with concrete and were, in the main, built by units themselves and the construction was combined with other engineering duties such as trench construction and maintenance, road building and water supply.

WW1 - The Ypres Salient Battlefields, Belgium
IWM Q 10267 Construction of a reserve line at Wieltje. Troops of the Royal Engineer fixing up the steel supports outside an 'elephant iron' shelter before covering it with concrete. Notice the entrance framework already in place. 18 February 1918.

The British began, after Third Ypres, to develop a defence in depth strategy themselves in the Salient and started to build bunkers to consolidate the ground gained. This in the knowledge that a German counter offensive in the Spring of 1918 was inevitable following Russia’s withdrawal from the war.

It should also be noted that much of what we can see today was because of the work of the Commonwealth engineers from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

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