Durand Group

The Durand Group has its’ origins with investigations of the Grange subway and connected La Folie system tunnels at the Vimy Memorial Site by Royal Engineer Teams in the late 1980s. These established that there was one primed mine charge with 6,000 lb of explosive (the Durand Mine) situated 70 ft below the surface close to the Grange subway, and another small camouflet charge in the tunnels under the forest area. Archival research also indicated the possibility of an abandoned 20,000 lb charge under the busy road junction at the Broadmarsh crater.


The potential hazard presented by these mines concerned Veterans Affairs Canada. In 1996, with the approach of the 80th anniversary commemorations at Vimy, Lt Col Phillip Robinson (by then retired), who had conducted the earlier investigations, was asked to access and check the situation with the ‘Broadmarsh mine’. A small team of specialists in various disciplines was assembled and gained access. They found that although a substantial quantity of explosive (ammonal) remained, the initiation system had been removed and there was no danger of an induced explosion.


Arising from this, Lt Col Mike Watkins, MBE, of the Royal Logistic Corps, and a leading international expert in explosives, proposed the forming of a specialist Group to conduct further investigations of Great War Tunnels and Mines. Soon afterwards Mike Watkins removed the sensitive detonators and primers from the Durand mine, rendering it safe. Consequent on this the title Durand Group was adopted by the then members. It is defined in its Constitution as “a fraternal association of individuals who have voluntarily undertaken to work together to further research and investigation into military related subterranean features”.


In support of Veterans Affairs Canada, the Group continued with investigations of the many kilometres of tunnels beneath the Vimy site but received a tragic setback in August 1998 when Mike Watkins was killed by a collapse of clay whilst in the process of accessing another tunnel system at Vimy. He is commemorated by the exceptional tribute of a bronze plaque erected by Veterans Affairs close to the entrance to the Grange subway.


The then members of the Group decided that continuing the works undertaken with Mike was the best manner in which his vision could be realised. Since then the Group have accessed around six kilometres of British and German tunnels at Vimy and disarmed two further live mine charges, engaged with the Arras municipality in investigations of the Ronville tunnel system, and undertaken works in a number of other places, including on the Somme. One of the more notable achievements was gaining access, through clearance of an eight metre deep shaft, of the Goodman subway at Vimy and opening up about 600 metres. Untouched since the battlefield clearances of the 1920s this incorporated a rich harvest of graffiti left (mostly) by the troops of 7 (Canadian) Infantry Brigade in early April 1917.


The work on the Goodman subway led to approaches from a Canadian film company for a film, preceding the 90th anniversary at Vimy, which in turn indirectly led the Durand Group to the Maison Blanche souterraine.