On 3rd December 1914 General Sir Henry Rawlinson had suggested the idea that men with mining experience from within the Army should be formed into a special unit. From mediaeval times the art of tunnelling under an opponent’s walls had been part of the siege. Whilst the enemy’s walls in this case ran to several hundred kilometres the principals remained sound. In an age when air power was in its infancy the alternative to frontal attack remained going underground.
The idea fell on deaf ears. Sir John French in command of the British Expeditionary Force insisted that mining was the realm of the Royal Engineers. However within months, Lord Kitchener (Formerly a Royal Engineer) found himself listening to the rather eccentric Member of Parliament for Wednesbury. A man who had already managed to form his own unit of cavalry: 2nd King Edward’s Horse.
Major John Norton Griffiths MP was an engineering contractor with his own company Griffiths and Co. He believed, he told Kitchener (and demonstrated on the floor of the office), that the system of tunnelling known as clay kicking would be an ideal system in Belgium and Northern France where the ground was similar to that underneath Manchester, where, by chance, he happened to be completing a contract on a new drainage system.
The system requires a tunneller to lie on his back on a board positioned diagonally in front of the face to be worked. From this position the tunneller simply kicked into the clay with his spade. On a standard tunnel a man could advance about two and a half metres in an eight hour period.
Wearing felt slippers and using rubber wheeled trolleys to take away the spoil the men would be about as silent as it was possible to be.
Norton Griffiths was taken up on his offer to form tunnelling units — under the auspices of the Royal Engineers.
A similar proposal by Academics from Sydney and Melbourne Universities to the Australian Government had already caused the formation of what would become three Australian Tunnelling Companies.
Kitchener wanted thousands of such men working on the front as soon as possible. In reality, skilled men ran into mere hundreds. Norton Griffiths set off touring the Western Front in his Rolls Royce (still a British company at this stage, rather than German) ready to convince commanders that Soldier Bloggins was a perfect man for such vital work (some of the convincing was done with luxury goods, and I rather think of some of the scenes from the film: Schindler’s List as Norton Griffiths charmed them out of soldiers).
To persuade the men themselves to take up what was incredibly dangerous and nerve racking work, Norton Griffiths offered a salary of six shillings a week (30 new British Pence/centimes). When this was compared to the standard RE sapper’s pay of two shillings and sixpence (12½ pence/centimes) it left room for complaint and bitterness against the tunnellers.
Each of the (initially) eight Companies would be staffed by 5 Officers and 269 NCOs and men. Any labouring that needed to be done would be carried out by ordinary infantry who would be attached for a period. Often that period was when they were not themselves manning the front line trenches and were thus in theory resting.
The work that the tunnellers carried out was by its nature highly secret. Sometimes the men themselves didn’t know exactly what they were at to ensure that if they were captured they would not be able to give away information.
It may have been the very secret nature of this work that meant that despite great courage in facing an arduous and always dangerous task, few of the Tunnelling Companies ever received recognition in the form of bravery awards.
Only one of them would ever receive the Victoria Cross and he was Sapper William Hackett. There is a memorial to him and all other tunnellers at Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée in France. Hackett still lies buried underground somewhere out in the field near the memorial.
The tunnellers did not just undertake offensive mining operations. Just as the Germans were trying to thwart British attacks so a large part of the tunneller’s job was to detect and destroy enemy mining operations.
To disrupt enemy mining operations a small charge called a camouflet would be used under the offending tunnel. This was intended to cause a large enough tremor beneath the enemy tunnel to bring it down whilst not being so large that it would disrupt the surface (The reason being of course that it was your own position at the surface).
If a detonation leaves a cavern in the ground it’s a camouflet.
If the explosion breaks the surface then it’s a crater.
Rather amazingly the British had been hesitant to start underground operations for fear it might provoke the Germans into doing the same. The Germans simply considered such operations as an age old technique and were the first to detonate mines (albeit small ones) under the front line at Festubert on 20th December 1914.
Various sensitive listening devices were invented to allow soldiers to locate German sappers underground. Sometimes tunnels would be so close one side could hear what the other was saying.
Other listening devices were somewhat cruder; the French issue water bottle which had flat sides was found to be an excellent listening device when filled with water and placed on the ground with a listening pipe attached via the stopper.
The Tunnelling Companies also undertook the building of underground accommodation blocks. The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company provided a dug out under Hill 63 which would house two battalions. Elsewhere in the preparatory stage to Messines over fifty deep dugouts were constructed for Headquarters units, and over four kilometres of accommodation tunnels for the soldiers to shelter or rest in.
In Messines Ridge Norton Griffiths recognised a golden opportunity to prove his men’s worth. He put together a plan with his Royal Engineer colleagues to reduce the German front line to dust.
His proposal was to sink mine shafts into the ridge further and deeper than had ever been done before. With twenty or so such mines in place and detonated at the same moment the result would be, not so much an opening up of the ridge, but such a shaking that the German defences would collapse in on themselves.
The upper layer of soil in this part of Flanders is sand and anybody who has ever dug down at the beach knows that sand holds a lot of water. Thus the first task for the tunnellers was to sink shafts down far enough to get under this layer of sand and into the clay.
From there the tunnels would be extended out under the German lines. The men worked under extremely cramped conditions and whilst these were men who had performed the same task in civilian life, underneath the German lines the tunnels were only big enough to admit a man, certainly not large open drainage systems like those back home. Back home there wasn’t the possibility of being discovered by German listening posts and blown to pieces by counter mining measures.
Getting air down the tunnels was also problematical for such a great distance. Before the adoption of silent electrical pumps, the air below ground depended on the muscles of a man up top working a bellows for eight hours.
Each time there was an explosion underground whether by means of a camouflet or shelling, this left pockets of poisonous carbon monoxide gas. Tunnellers used a variety of methods to alert themselves to the gas including mice and canaries. It was necessary to trim the claws of the canaries to ensure that they didn’t simply grip their perches all the harder trying to resist the gas.
In 2004 a monument at Couin in France was unveiled to all the animals that took part in the war — including the canaries.
One advantage to mining so far down was that it was difficult for the Germans to pick them up. Of the 22 mines that were dug for the Messines Operation only one (At Petite Douve Ferme) was ever located and flooded by the Germans.
As an attack on Messines was originally pencilled in for some time in 1916 by the time that the attack was launched in June 1917 some of the mines had been in situ for over a year. Whilst carefully wrapped in waterproof coverings the mines still had to be serviced to ensure that they remained stable and that all the electrical cabling still functioned.
Norton Griffiths wasn’t in Belgium the day his work came to fruition, his task finished he had moved on, leaving the Tunnellers on 31st March 1916 following a reorganisation of the units. In a few years he would be Lt Colonel Sir John Norton Griffiths.
He might not have seen his work, but lying at home in the south of England he certainly heard it.