Let’s Remember Together – The second part of our Life Stories series

Ninety-six years ago today, the guns had fallen silent on the Western Front. The first full day of peace had begun. I can only imagine the relief of the men who survived to witness it, and yesterday we came together to remember the tragic loss of those who did not.

Thankfully, the name I picked to research today belongs to the former group – Regimental Sergeant Major T.V. Roberts, mentioned on the 31st of October, 1915 on this page of the 2nd Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment’s diary.

Image © IWM (Q 9650) – Troops of the 1/4th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment (Pioneer Battalion of the 55th Division) crossing a pontoon bridge over the Scheldt river at Tournai, 9 November 1918.

Image © IWM (Q 9650) – Troops of the 1/4th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment (Pioneer Battalion of the 55th Division) crossing a pontoon bridge over the Scheldt river at Tournai, 9 November 1918.

Number 4918 RSM Talbot Vivian W. Roberts was born in 1881 in Warrington. The 1891 census lists him as still being there, age 10. He appears in the return for Orford Barracks, where he lived with his father, a Paymaster Sergeant with the Infantry, his mother, three younger brothers and three younger sisters.

He doesn’t appear in any other census returns, but we know the 2nd Battalion of the South Lancashires served overseas from 1881 until the outbreak of the First World War. Given his rank, we might assume he enlisted with them at some point after the 1891 census and so was stationed outside of the UK when the censuses were carried out.

Sadly, like so many others, his Army service record has been lost. However, from his Medal Index Cards (he has two), we can see he was Mentioned in Despatches, although not when or why. We also see that he transferred from the South Lancashires at some point into the Labour Corps, where he retained his rank, but was assigned a new service number, 314641. There is no record of why this happened, but the Labour Corps was manned by men who had been medically rated below the ‘A1′ condition needed for front line service. Many of them had been wounded and returned to duty – I wonder whether this has anything to do with RSM Roberts’ Mention in Despatches.

Beyond that, details are sparse. We know he survived the war and died in 1940, aged 59, in Winchester.

Take a look at his Life Story – perhaps you can add to it. Join us on the blog tomorrow, when we’ll post the next installment of our Let’s Remember Together series. In the meantime, let us know if you’re researching names from the diaries too – we’d love to help ensure the legacies of the men mentioned in their pages are preserved.

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Let’s Remember Together – Life Stories from Operation War Diary pages

Today is Remembrance Day in the UK, although for those of us tagging the war diaries, I think every day is one of Remembrance. That’s one of the most important things about the project – it’s far more than a data-generation exercise. Every time we read somebody’s name, we connect with the life they lived 100 years ago, even if only with a brief snapshot of it. What better way to remember them and their actions?

If you’re anything like me, you can’t help but wonder, though…what became of them, where did they come from? Lives of the First World War, IWM’s permanent digital memorial, allows us to begin building up details around those brief snippets we uncover in the diary pages.

As part of the Let’s Remember Together campaign, I picked three names from random diary pages and went searching through the records to see what details I could uncover. Happily, all the names I chose survived the war, although so many countless others did not.

Image © IWM (Q 3987) – A Lewis light machine gun in action in a front line trench near Ovillers. Possibly troops of the Worcestershire Regiment of the 48th Division.

Image © IWM (Q 3987) – A Lewis light machine gun in action in a front line trench near Ovillers. Possibly troops of the Worcestershire Regiment of the 48th Division.

The first name I found was Second Lieutenant H.B. Lomas, mentioned here in the diary of the 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment as a Lewis Gun Officer. Searching through the record sets available in Lives of the First World War, I was able to discover that he was Harold Baldwin, and that he later became a Captain in a Tank Battalion. Perhaps this was because of his background as a machine gun officer. The Tank Corps started out life as the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps.

Census records show the was born in 1890 in Toxteth Park, then in Lancashire. His father, Joseph, was a geology teacher. By 1901, the family had moved to Birkenhead, where Harold’s mother, Sylvia, had given birth to Olga, his sister. Things seemed to have been reasonably comfortable for them – there is a servant listed on the census return.

The 1911 census shows the family at the same address in Birkenhead. Harold’s mother is now listed as a widow. Harold is 20. He works as an apprentice engineer in the shipyards. Sadly, his military service record no longer survives, so we can only guess at his enlistment date.

He made it home from the war and died in Rugby, in 1947. Can you add to his Life Story on Lives of the First World War?

I’ll post about the other names I researched over the next couple of days. In the meantime, join us for two minute’s silence at 11am and let’s remember together the names of the war diaries.

 

Operation War Diary – Keeping Names Alive

When Operation War Diary launched earlier this year, we aimed to produce a structured data set covering the daily activities of all the diverse units which operated on the Western Front. Three hundred and twenty nine diaries in and the project is not just fulfilling this initial aim, but is also building up a rich resource of hashtags, covering areas from the condition and treatment of horses to the emergence of aerial warfare over the trenches.

One thing that hasn’t changed from the project’s inception is the importance of names. Names are central to Operation War Diary – they are what makes all the other information we’re collecting real, the visual reminder that it relates to the daily experiences of people just like us.

Image © IWM (Q 526) - A group of the King's Liverpool Regiment in the trenches at Blairville, near Wailly, 16th April 1916.

Image © IWM (Q 526) – A group of the King’s Liverpool Regiment in the trenches at Blairville, near Wailly, 16th April 1916.

So far, we’ve identified over 50,000 unique names. Many of these belong to officers, but there are a great number of Other Ranks too, many of them only ever mentioned once in all the millions of pages we have to tag. That’s what makes the work of our Citizen Historians so important – if that person isn’t tagged, we may never find the reference to them again, yet by tagging it we can make it visible and accessible to others who come after us. We can ensure their legacy is preserved.

Tagging names can be extremely time-consuming, especially when we encounter long lists of them, and yet there’s nothing more important. If you find you can’t tag the names for any reason, please use our #nominalroll hashtag to mark the page, to ensure that we can find it again later. We’ll keep track of all these pages and, if necessary, we’ll re-open them for tagging later.

Image © IWM (Q 1064) - Group of Indian Cavalry dismounted near Fricourt, July 1916.

Image © IWM (Q 1064) – Group of Indian Cavalry dismounted near Fricourt, July 1916.

It’s an opportune moment to pause and look back at how many names we’ve tagged – the 11th of November is fast approaching, anniversary of the Armistice and the UK and Commonweath’s Remembrance Day. This year, the Imperial War Museum is encouraging everybody to take an active part in Remembrance through its Let’s Remember Together campaign.

In partnership with the National Archives and the Lives of the First World War community of over 44,000 people, IWM would like to work with you to share the Life Stories that are your connection to the First World War. Your connection could be a relative who served, someone who shares your surname or a person listed on your local war memorial. In the case of Operation War Diary Citizen Historians, it might also be a name you have uncovered in one of the war diaries.

Whoever they are, we encourage you to share their story on Lives of the First World War, the permanent digital memorial to over 8 million men and women from across Britain and the Commonwealth who made a contribution during the First World War. Here at Operation War Diary headquarters, we’ll be blogging again about the connections we’ve uncovered.

Raiding Parties – What really happened?

Many battalion war diaries make mention of raiding parties – groups of men sent out into no-man’s land to disrupt the enemy, or gather intelligence. They were obviously dangerous undertakings – most mention of them is accompanied by a list of casualties – but we don’t hear much about what actually went on. Not anymore – one of our Citizen Historians has found a set of incredibly detailed pages in the diary of 2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, which lays out exactly what happened, including all the men involved and their jobs during the operation.

Image © IWM (Q 5098) - A raiding party of the 10th Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) waiting in sap for the signal to go. Near Arras, 24 March 1917.

Image © IWM (Q 5098) – A raiding party of the 10th Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) waiting in sap for the signal to go. Near Arras, 24 March 1917.

The pages begin with a description: ‘Report on the Minor Enterprise carried out…on the night of the 14th/15th March, 1916.’

As you’ll soon see, the enterprise was anything but minor!

Two officers, five sergeants and thirty nine other ranks made up the raiding party. Captain Smith, RNR (probably Royal Navy Reserve, who provided troops for the Royal Naval Division) was also attached. His job was to breach the German wire, so the DLI party could rush their trenches. A Forward Observation Officer from the 42nd Battery was present in the DLI front-line trenches, in order to call down an artillery barrage if the raiding party needed it.

The main aim of the raid was to capture a prisoner, who would be interrogated in order to find out vital intelligence about the enemy’s disposition. The group was split into three. Captain Smith had a small party of torpedo men (a Bangalore torpedo was a series of long tubes, some filled with explosives) to help him breach the wire. There were scouts and then the main raiding party itself.

The raiding party was further divided into two groups, each of which would enter the enemy’s trench at a different point. Second Lieutenant W.L.P. Griffith-Jones was in overall command of both groups. The men under him were assigned very specific jobs: bayonet men, grenadiers and men for removing prisoners.

Image © IWM (Q 5101) - A raiding party from the 10th Battalion, Scottish Rifles (Cameronians) leaving a sap and making for the German lines. Near Arras, 24 March 1917.

Image © IWM (Q 5101) – A raiding party from the 10th Battalion, Scottish Rifles (Cameronians) leaving a sap and making for the German lines. Near Arras, 24 March 1917.

The scouts’ job was to move out ahead of the raiding party and report back on enemy movements. Once they had done this and returned, Captain Smith and his torpedo men would take up their positions and make the torpedo ready to breach the enemy wire.

Behind them, the raiding parties under Second Lieutenant Griffith-Jones would move forward. Sergeant Lowe was in charge of the group tasked with entering the German trenches on the left, while Sergeant Tighe led the party entering on the right. Each had with them three bayonet men, three grenadiers and two men for removing prisoners. The order these men would advance in was worked out to ensure maximum offensive capability at the front and protection for the removal of the prisoners.

An additional Sergeant and four men stayed behind to guard the communications trench.

Two further bayonet men acted as a personal escort for Second Lieutenant Griffith-Jones, while he coordinated the action.

The password to be used was NEWCASTLE. This would ensure the raiders could identify one another and get back into their own trenches safely.

Image © IWM (Q 510) - A raiding party of the 1/8th (Irish) King's Liverpool Regiment, 55th Division, at Wailly, France. Photograph taken the morning after a night raid durnig the 17/18th April 1916.

Image © IWM (Q 510) – A raiding party of the 1/8th (Irish) King’s Liverpool Regiment, 55th Division, at Wailly, France. Photograph taken the morning after a night raid durnig the 17/18th April 1916.

What’s even more unusual, is that all the men involved are listed by name. We can see the job assigned to each of them. Check out the pages here, here and here.

All men wore fatigue dress, but replaced their helmets with soft cloth caps, so as not to risk the moonlight catching any metal and giving away their presence. Each man had a rifle and bayonet, along with two grenades in his pocket. NCOs carried revolvers. In addition, each man had a knob-kerrie – essentially a club, for close-quarters fighting.

Thanks to Operation War Diary’s Citizen Historians this information, recorded so assiduously almost 100 years ago, is now visible again. It’s incredible to feel this close to events which happened before any of us were even born, and yet in reading the words in the diarist’s own hand it feels as if the operation is being planned for tomorrow.

A later report tells us that the raiding party made it back to their own trenches relatively unscathed, but that they failed to get the intelligence they were after when a German bomb killed the prisoner they were bringing back. They were highly commended for their bravery.

The Indian Army arrives in France

100 years ago today, the first Indian Army troops had landed in France and would soon be thrown into the fighting on the Western Front.  They had arrived in Marseilles dressed in khaki drill uniforms – clothing not suited to the European climate. They wouldn’t be equipped with standard British Army battledress until the end of 1914.

Image © IWM (Q 28789) - Band of the 40th Pathans playing in a meadow beside a French village watched by men of the regiment and French civilians.

Image © IWM (Q 28789) – Band of the 40th Pathans playing in a meadow beside a French village watched by men of the regiment and French civilians.

Perhaps within that context, it’s no great surprise that the Indian soldiers were only issued the Lee Enfield rifle – the standard British Army infantry weapon – once they’d arrived in the Ypres Salient.

Image © IWM (Q 4070) - Men of Indian Hotchkiss Gun Team practising near Querrieu, 29 July 1916.

Image © IWM (Q 4070) – Men of Indian Hotchkiss Gun Team practising near Querrieu, 29 July 1916.

The Indian troops fought at Wytschaete and Messines, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Givenchy. They suffered terribly in the cold and muddy conditions. The Germans also attempted to take advantage of their relative inexperience, sometimes falsely flying white flags to make the Indian soldiers believe they were surrendering. This led to a command being issued that all white flags should be fired upon. Eventually, conditions became so bad that a retreat was ordered. At the same time, the Germans fired a mine they had dug beneath the Indian positions. An entire company – 200 men – were lost without trace.

In just a matter of weeks, the Indian troops had lost well over 2,000 men killed, along with numerous casualties.

Image © IWM (Q 53348) - A group of wounded Indian soldiers walk across the cobbles of a French village.

Image © IWM (Q 53348) – A group of wounded Indian soldiers walk across the cobbles of a French village.

The Indian soldiers continued to fight bravely on during 1915, with further heavy losses. Morale declined dramatically. Replacement officers did not speak the language of their troops and often had no understanding of the traditional Indian Army culture. Reinforcements to the ranks were also drafted from any regiment and had no cultural affiliation to their new units. The structures the soldiers operated within broke down.

Finally, during the latter months of 1915, the Indian regiments were withdrawn from the Western Front and went on to serve with great distinction in other theatres. Two Indian cavalry brigades did remain, fighting until the end of the war with great bravery.

You will shortly be able to follow the stories of these troops – the National Archives have finished digitising a number of the Indian Army war diaries and we look forward to loading them into Operation War Diary for tagging in the very near future.

Faces of the War Diaries – Stars of the Silver Screen

1st Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment’s war diary entry for the 13th of September, 1917 was fairly routine. The battalion was behind the lines at Liencourt, roughly 18 miles west of Arras. They undertook training as per their programme. Lieutenant G. R. Simpson joined them. They record the weather as being fine during the morning, but dull and windy in the afternoon and night.

Something else happened that day, however, and for Marie, one of our Citizen Historians, it really stood out from the crowd:

Cinematograph film taken of Battalion defiling past the Commanding Officer, etc.

Some quick detective work established that not only does a copy of this film still exist, it’s held in the Imperial War Museum’s collection and is available to view online. Thanks to Marie, words written down just over ninety-seven years ago have come to life – we can look into the faces of the men who fill the diary’s pages, get a sense of the bonds between them, the tight-knit spirit which sustained them during the bad times and the good.

We see them on parade and at rest. We also see Private Thomas Alfred ‘Todger’ Jones, awarded the Victoria Cross for actions during the Battle of Morval, just under a year before the film was made. He appears to be quite shy, a little bashful in front of the lens. It’s humbling to think that this unassuming man advanced alone across no-man’s land to kill an enemy sniper, bullets passing through his helmet and coat. He killed another two enemy soldiers who were firing at him, before single-handedly disarming another 102.

Image © IWM (Q 5240) - British troops embussing in Arras to go back for a rest, May 1917.

Image © IWM (Q 5240) – British troops embussing in Arras to go back for a rest, May 1917.

You can watch the film here: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060022854

And you can see the diary page here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0001ibw

For Marie, who made the connection in the first place, this is fantastic news:

When I tagged this and asked if maybe there was a record of the film in the Archives, I never thought that the search would be so successful. This certainly brings ‘History Back to Life’ after 100 years!

The film was so emotive. The men so smart marching, gathering around and looking happy distributing their food, relaxing and smiling for the camera. After tagging that Private 11000, T A Jones, had been awarded the Victoria Cross for killing 3 snipers, and capturing 102 Germans at Morval, to see him on this film was so surprising.

Mapping Operation War Diary – Bringing the Battlefields of Yesterday to Life

Recently, Steve Hirschorn at the National Archives has been looking at ways to visualise the information being generated by Operation War Diary Citizen Historians. As part of this work, he has taken maps found in the pages of the war diaries and, using the known coordinates of certain features contained within them, has fitted them to current satellite images using Google Earth. This process is known as georectifying and can help us assess how much the landscapes described in the war diaries have changed in the 100 years since they were written.

Image © IWM (Q 4957) - Officers of one of the Teritorial Force (TF) battalions studying maps in Peronne, which the British troops entered on 18 March 1917.

Image © IWM (Q 4957) – Officers of one of the Teritorial Force (TF) battalions studying maps in Peronne, which the British troops entered on 18 March 1917.

Over to Steve, who can tell you exactly how he’s done this…

Thanks to the efforts of volunteers using the #map hash-tag in the talk forum, it’s been easy for me to find georeference-able content.  By geo-rectifying maps, it would be possible to use a GPS device to find the exact co-ordinates of anything that is documented in the maps, such as trench locations and routes, and machine gun emplacements.

Four KMZ (Google Earth/Google Maps) files are linked below. If you have Google Earth (free download available), you can use these files to view First World War maps overlaid on a recent satellite image.  The KMZ files can also be imported into Google Maps, but the functionality via the website is more limited compared to the full Google Earth client.

After you have downloaded a KMZ file, you’ll see the war diary maps overlaid on the satellite view, but completely opaque.  Look in the left-hand menu on Google Earth and by right-clicking an individual map item, you can select Properties and in the properties dialog box that appears, you can adjust the transparency from 0% to 100% and anywhere in between.  I’ve tried to identify evidence in the current-day satellite images and street view photos of trench locations, but haven’t had much luck so far.

I’m amazed how well the most of the maps fit the current day landscape features.  The odd road has disappeared here and there, but there are always enough reference points to fit the map, and they usually fit with just a bit of stretching and rotating, all of which functionality is also available in the free Google Earth client. A couple of them show trench locations (the map of Bullecourt) and machine gun placements (Ypres).

If you missed the link the first time, Google Earth can be downloaded here: http://www.google.co.uk/intl/en_uk/earth/

Steve’s map files can be downloaded using the following links:

Lastly, as this is a new area of exploration for us here at Operation War Diary, and because none of us are experts on it, we have some questions which we hope you might be able to help us with:

  • Is KMZ the best, most open format for sharing geo-rectified maps?  Is there a better format?
  • A bit of researching on the Internet suggests that there are ways of loading KMZ files onto a SatNav.  Again, are KMZ files the best way of supporting this?
  • Are there any web-based applications that enable geo-rectification of maps, and also provide a method of sharing geo-rectified maps?
  • Do you have any geo-rectified maps you’ve created that you’d like to share?
  • Are there any other ideas for things that we can do with the maps?

Post your answers in the comments here, or get involved on our forums at: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/boards

The Soldiers’ Bond – Operation War Diary Volunteers and the Men Who Fought 100 Years Ago

In the short time I’ve been working on Operation War Diary, I’ve been privileged to go behind the anonymity of our onscreen usernames and get to know some of our Citizen Historians a little better. There are people from all walks of life and backgrounds giving up their time to help preserve the legacy of the men who fought and died 100 years ago. For all of us, reading the war diaries can be a humbling, often deeply saddening experience, but many of our volunteers have served in the military themselves, and I’ve often wondered how their own experiences affected them as they worked on the project.

Kris Bancroft, a former U.S. Army Artilleryman and veteran of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, was kind enough to tell me what it means to him.

I always wanted to be a soldier, so much that I joined the U.S. Army National Guard shortly after I turned 17 years old.  A few days after I graduated from High School in 1989, I made the decision to go on active duty, and my life has never been the same since.  Not long ago, I came across Operation War Diary.  As a combat veteran with severe PTSD, I must admit that my first thought after reading and tagging a few war diary pages was that I was making a mistake.  Instead, I discovered a connection that has kept me coming back night after night.  I read about the harsh winter weather, and the hot summer days.  I tag the names of soldiers who come and go, and even more who will never leave the fields and trenches.  In short, I find that I relate to soldiers mentioned in the war diaries and all they have gone through.  Thanks to Operation War Diary, I have been given a chance to do something meaningful to honor the soldiers of “The Great War”.

Image © IWM (Q 5817) - Three 8 inch howitzers of 39th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA), firing from the Fricourt-Mametz Valley during the Battle of the Somme, August 1916

Image © IWM (Q 5817) – Three 8 inch howitzers of 39th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA), firing from the Fricourt-Mametz Valley during the Battle of the Somme, August 1916

As well as the time and energy Kris invests in Operation War Diary, he also runs a popular YouTube channel, IKINA WANA (also known as Warfighters), which he created to honour all soldiers from all countries. In the past he’s used the profits from the channel to support veterans’ causes across the United States, including the creation of memorials to comrades who didn’t come home. Kris has also very generously offered to donate profits from the channel to the Imperial War Museum to help us preserve the past and we’re incredibly grateful for his support. 

You can visit IKINA WANA here: https://www.youtube.com/user/justmekkb

Why not get in touch and tell us what Operation War Diary means to you? You can get involved at http://www.operationwardiary.org/

Who fired the first shot of World War 1?

Nowadays, it’s widely believed that the first British soldier to fire a shot in anger on the Western Front was Drummer Edward Thomas, of the 4th Dragoon Guards, who at 7am on the 22nd of August, 1914 spotted an enemy cavalryman ahead and opened fire on him.

The picture was not always so clear, however.

Eleanor Broaders, one of our eagle-eyed Citizen Historians, found an intriguing entry in the diary of the 3rd Division’s Cyclist Company, dated 12th of November, 1915. In it, the commanding officer, Captain Eric Swaine, writes:

In the Field Almanac 1915 (Official Copy) it states that “First shot fired between German and British Forces took place at 12.40pm August 23rd, 1915.”

This Company exchanged shots with German Cavalry before noon on August 22nd, 1915. One German Uhlan was wounded and his lance captured.

There are some obvious errors in Captain Swaine’s account. He records the year as 1915, for example, rather than 1914 and by 12.40pm on August the 23rd, the Battle of Mons was already well underway. However, if you allow for the fact that this entry was probably written in haste over a year after the events by a man in the midst of war, it still makes for some very interesting reading.

Image © IWM (Q 2103) - Cyclists moving up to the forward area

Image © IWM (Q 2103) – Cyclists moving up to the forward area

Whatever really happened, it’s true that, 100 years ago today, Captain Swaine’s Cyclist Company would have been amongst the first British units in action on continental Europe since the Napoleonic Wars of the previous century. Lightweight and mobile, the cyclists made excellent reconnaissance troops and would have been amongst the first units to encounter the enemy. In fact, another cyclist, Private John Parr, became the first British soldier to be killed on the Western Front the day before Captain Swaine’s Company captured their German lance, after he and a companion encountered a German cavalry patrol in the village of Obourg, north-east of Mons. It’s believed Private Parr stayed behind to hold the enemy unit off, while his comrade withdrew to warn the rest of the British troops that Germans were in the area.

With 100 years of history between us and the events of the 22nd of August, 1914, it’s easy to forget how confused things were in those early days of the war, when the armies were still mobile and the deadlock of trench warfare had yet to emerge. Why not get involved at Operation War Diary and uncover history as it was written.

You can read Captain Swaine’s diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD00014ea

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.

Image © IWM (Q 754) - The mine under German front line positions at Hawthorn Redoubt is fired 10 minutes before the assault at Beaumont Hamel on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916.

Image © IWM (Q 754) – The mine under German front line positions at Hawthorn Redoubt is fired 10 minutes before the assault at Beaumont Hamel on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916.

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.