- Estate agents are used to talking up the good points
of a property while drawing a veil over its less attractive aspects. But
it would take a particularly resourceful one to gloss over the downside
of La Basse Cour in Belgium.
- The first bit is easy: "Attractive farm consisting
of seven buildings set in 150 acres in the heart of historic Flanders on
the Messines Ridge near Ypres. Ideal getaway for the busy metropolitan
family. One hour 30 minutes from Channel Tunnel."
- The problem lies with one of the original features: the
bomb. Not any old bomb, but the world's biggest unexploded bomb - 50,000
lbs to be exact. Still there, 80 feet under the farm, waiting for its big
day. "Potential for redevelopment" might cover it.
- The bomb - or more accurately mine - was the product
of one of the greatest and most secret engineering exercises of the First
World War. It lay half-forgotten for 80 years until British researchers
were able to establish its exact whereabouts using maps of the period.
- In January 1916, thousands of British miners began tunnelling
out of the Ypres Salient towards the German lines on the Messines Ridge.
- The plan was to plant 25 enormous mines under the enemy
trenches and then blow them shortly before a major offensive planned for
the summer of that year. The operation was postponed until the summer of
1917, but when it took place the results were spectacular.
- More than 1,000,000 lbs of high explosive were packed
into underground chambers along a seven-mile front. On June 7, 19 of the
mines detonated in the space of 30 seconds in the biggest series of controlled
explosions yet seen. Buildings within a 30-mile radius rocked on their
foundations, and the bang was heard in Downing Street. In Switzerland,
seismographs registered a small earthquake.
- As many as 6,000 German troops perished in the inferno
and the Messines Ridge was quickly taken by General Sir Herbert Plumer's
Second Army. The Battle of Messines was regarded as the most successful
local operation of the war.
- But it left a legacy: six mines were not used. Four on
the extreme southern flank were not required because the ridge fell so
quickly, and another, a 20,000lb mine codenamed Peckham, was abandoned
before the attack due to a tunnel collapse.
- The sixth, and one of the biggest, was planted under
a ruined farm called La Petite Douve. It was lost when the Germans mounted
a counter-mining attack, and never used.
- After the war, La Petite Douve was rebuilt by its owners,
the Mahieu family, and later renamed La Basse Cour. The mine is beneath
a barn, next to the farmhouse .
- Roger Mahieu is proud that he still farms the same land
as his father and grandfather, and, luckily for the estate agents, he isn't
- Indeed, the little matter of 22 tons of high explosive
lying 80 feet below his property seems to trouble him hardly at all.
- "It doesn't stop me sleeping at night," he
said. "It's been there all that time, why should it decide to blow
up now?" The story of the La Petite Douve mine - and the Peckham mine,
which by unfortunate coincidence also sits under a farmhouse - is recounted
in the Channel Five documentary Ultimate Explosions, shown tonight.
- M Mahieu, 60, who lives at the farm with his wife and
daughter, seems to have a relaxed attitude to the subject of ordnance.
- Like many farmers in areas of Belgium and northern France
scarred by the Western Front he is used to digging up old artillery shells
and other potentially lethal devices during his work.
- But history suggests he should not be all that relaxed.
In 1955 one of the four unused mines at the southern end of the ridge detonated
after 38 years in the ground.
- The explosion was believed to have been triggered by
a lightning strike.
- © Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2004.