Book Review: Beneath the Killing Fields: Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front by Matthew Leonard

Beneath the Killing Fields is a study and description of the subterranean remnants from WWI (tunnels,
mines, etc.) that for the most part were covered up and forgotten in the post-war period. This is
actually a pretty interesting book if you can get past the author’s obvious contempt for every other
branch of historical study beyond modern conflict archaeology. The author waxes eloquent at several
different places about how his particular field of study is the only one that illuminates the lived
experience of conflict on the western front. I am not going to argue here, I will simply point out that
without the work of those other branches of historical study modern conflict archaeology could not exist
as a discipline.
The book itself consists of 7 chapters with ephemera, endnotes, and a bibliography. There are 154
pages of text, 12 pages of notes, and a 6 page bibliography. There are also rather copious photos
scattered throughout the work.
3 battlefields are covered in some detail, Loos, Vimy Ridge, and Verdun. The battlefields are covered
quite well with, wonder of wonders, a historical treatment of each battlefield beginning the respective
chapters and then a discussion of the archaeological findings of the author’s own Durand Group of
researchers in their explorations of the various mines and tunnels still extant. The discussion of each
system is very interesting and the narrative of the battle chapters is quite readable. The author quite
rightly points out the dangers of untrained people accessing these systems and strongly cautions against
Overall this is a very interesting look at an aspect of life on the western front that is mentioned but not
really detailed in contemporary campaign histories. Modern conflict archaeology has an important role
in expanding and illuminating the new trend of micro history but like micro history itself, cannot answer
the big questions of why the big events happened. If you want to know how the common soldier lived
micro history is great, but if you want to know what decisions shaped nations and wars then you must
turn to macro history. Together, micro and macro history paint an overall picture and that is what the
author seems to forget. The fighting went underground due to events on the battlefield but those
events were determined pre-war by developments in doctrine and weapons technology beyond the
power of the common soldier to control.
I recommend this book because it examines a very interesting aspect of trench warfare. I caution you to
beware of the authors’ bias and the way he disparages other historical disciplines.