Tunnellers – The First World War Underground
Imagine the Western Front – planes wheeling overhead in dogfights, artillery barrages whistling in to pulverise the trenches, infantry waiting for the whistle blast that would send them over the top and into the teeth of the waiting machine guns.
The war that went on beneath their feet is often forgotten, although it has left some of the deepest scars on the old battlegrounds. From the Somme to the Messines Ridge, and all points in between, the presence of the Royal Engineers Tunnelling Companies can still be seen in the massive craters their mines left behind.
Manned mainly by coal and tin miners and men with experience of civilian tunnelling work, ‘the Moles’ came into their own during February of 1915, when Major John Norton-Griffiths, a civil engineer by trade, shut down a tunnelling scheme eighteen of his employees were working on in Liverpool. The very next day, these same men arrived at the Royal Engineer’s HQ in Chatham and, a mere four days after their civilian employment ended, found themselves working underground on the Western Front.
The first major engagement for the newly formed companies came during the Battle for Hill 60 in the Ypres Salient. Tunnellers laid six mines, packed with thousands of pounds of explosives. When detonated, a mini-earthquake ruptured the hill, causing immense casualties amongst the German defenders.
Tunnelling was a dangerous business. The entrance to the workings was always a closely guarded secret, to prevent enemy attack. Miners had to work by candlelight in cramped, cold and often extremely wet conditions. Gas was a major risk, the tunnellers living under the constant fear of explosion, poisoning or asphyxiation. As if that weren’t enough, they had to operate as silently as possible, to avoid detection by the enemy. Incursions by both sides into the others’ tunnels was frequent, and these meetings were brutal in the extreme, men dying in vicious hand-to-hand combat in the dark, beaten and hacked by pick handles and shovel blades. British tunnelling companies kept emergency charges permanently primed, to be blown in the event of an enemy breakthrough.
A new memorial to these men who fought beneath the ground was unveiled on the 19th of June, 2010. Its dimensions were designed to be exactly the same as those of a standard British tunnel. Looking at it is perhaps the best way to truly understand just how terrible the environment was in which these men had to operate – you can find images here: http://www.tunnellersmemorial.com/the-unveiling-ceremony/
Keep an eye out for mention of the tunnelling companies in the unit war diaries. If you find them, use the hashtag #mine and help us ensure their story is told.