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Channel Tunnel: The French Connection

Jeffrey Syken

For nearly two centuries, the dream of a “fixed link” that would end Great Britain’s physical disconnect from the European continent was the subject of much discussion, debate, rumor and false starts. It’s not as though the British Isles and the European mainland had never been physically linked, in fact they had, during the last Ice Age when the North Sea was a large lake, closed-off at its northern edge by merged ice sheets from Britain and Scandinavia and at its southern edge by the Weald-Artois ridge. When this chalk ridge – which formed a land bridge between modern-day France and England – collapsed as a result of seismic activity, tsunamis and melting ice (which caused great flooding), the English Channel (a/k/a “Silver Streak”) was created; the busiest waterway in all the world (and most accident prone for shipping). The ancient bones of lions, bears wooly mammoths and hippopotamus’ found in Great Britain bear witness to the existence of this natural bridge in the northwestern corner of Europe.

First to consider a tunnel under the English Channel was a French mining engineer named Mathieu who proposed it to then First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. After considering it briefly, Napoleon turned his attentions to Austria instead, but he seriously considered and prepared for an invasion of Great Britain in the coming years, however, by the same method Julius Caesar had used: an invasion fleet. Caesar’s attempts at invading Britain never amounted to much, but that didn’t stop the Romans from pressing the issue of making Britain a Roman province. Napoleon’s invasion plans came to nothing, but the threat was clear and present through the rest of the 19th and well into the 20th century/s. Britain had been invaded by sea, first by the Romans and later by Angles, Saxons and Normans (and almost by the Spanish, French and Germans) and this fact was never very far away when it came to whether or not a tunnel, bridge (or combination thereof) should exist, trumping arguments that a tunnel would save time, encourage trade and end “Mal de Mer” (seasickness) caused by crossing the turbulent Channel waters by ferry.

The chalk marl lying beneath the Straits of Dover was ideal for tunneling purposes. It was deep below the bed of the channel, impervious to water, thick enough for a tunnel and easy to bore through by hand tools and/or tunneling machines which, by the 1870s, used compressed-air for power. When the first serious attempt at tunneling came to a close in 1883 as a result of an Act of Parliament, revivals of the tunnel scheme were attempted in the ensuing years, but the old bugaboo about invasion kept rearing its ugly head, even in the years during and immediately after WWII. However, during WWI it was made clear that had a tunnel existed, the movement of men and material across the Channel to the Western Front would have been both efficient and cost effective. With the formation of the European Community (EC) in the post-WWII years (of which the UK was a member), it became imperative that a fixed link exist in order to facilitate expanded trade relations. Besides, modern military technology made fears of an invasion via a tunnel a moot point. After a false start in the mid-1970s, the 1986 Treat of Canterbury, at long last, would make the dream of a Channel Tunnel a reality. By 1994, the “Chunnel” was open for business, ending forever Great Britain’s “Splendid Isolation.”

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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