The First World War drove many aspects of engineering on. Even though tunnelling had been a feature of warfare since at least 850BC, the rise and prominence of trench warfare during the conflict led to rapid advances. The main purpose of the Tunnellers work was to protect the infantry in their trenches from the actions of German Pioneers. This subterranean theatre of War relied on accuracy, technical ability and nerve. Our new feature by the Royal Engineers Museum, for our Engineers at War: From Home Front to Battle Front exhibition explores the ways in which tunnelling developed due to the needs of warfare and how this, in turn, affected the conflict. It can be read in full on the exhibition page.
Here we are sapping and mining under Fritz’s trenches and he is doing the same under ours and we can hear him quite distinctly by aid of a microphone listener.
By the end of 1914, as the opposing forces reached stalemate, the ubiquitous trenches of the Western Front began to emerge. Conditions for viable military mining were born and the lethal work of digging beneath the enemy’s fixed field defences, laying mines and counter-mines began. German Pioneers blew the first mine of the War late in 1914. This new threat from below caused increased uneasiness in the British Infantry. British mining began on a localised level only, with shafts being sunk from front line trenches by Royal Engineers Field Companies and skilled infantry. However, it was very quickly apparent that a more organised approach was the only way of ensuring schemes of sustainable defensive mining to counter the German threat. As with so much of the advancement in military technology during the War, the impetus and organisations of an expanded military mining capability came from the civilian world; engineer and MP John Norton Griffiths had realised that the geology of Manchester was very similar to that of Flanders and that the technique known a ‘Clay Kicking’, used by miners in his UK works, could easily transfer to the front line. It took only 36 hours for the first 18 Clay Kickers to transfer to military service and be tunnelling to the enemy.
An oft silent and subterranean war began. Extensive systems progressed along and across the front lines; spearheading an enormous logistical effort to supply timber, explosives and other equipment whilst ensuring that spoil and any other sign of mining remained unobserved. Secrecy was paramount as both sides established underground listening posts to monitor enemy activity and progress. Added to the not inconsiderable general hazards of mining was the constant threat of defensive action by the enemy.
The Somme offensive saw the first use of mining in the opening stages of a major ‘push’. Months in advance of the battle thousands of RE Tunnellers worked to preparing 19 mines. These targeted strategic positions on the German front line. Minutes before the first assault the mines were blown. The largest, Lochnegar mine at La Boiselle, blew over 60,000lbs of ammonal explosive and sent debris nearly 4000ft into the air. It successfully destroyed 9 German dugouts, about 300 men. Tunnelling Companies were also tasked with digging Russian Saps. These shallow tunnels crossed no-mans land to within metres of the German frontline with machine gun or trench mortar positions at their head. They could have provided essential shelter for Infantry, or surprise attack positions for bombing (grenade) parties before the attack. Many, however, were built in such secrecy that the Infantry were unaware of their existence whilst others were used successfully for communications and reinforcements.
Without doubt the most successful mining operation of the War was that at the Messine Ridge Offensive on the Ypres Salient 1917. Time and geology combined to allow an extensive system which, when blown destroyed an enormous area of ground and is thought to have instantly killed 10,000 Germans. The remaining defenders were profoundly disorientated and incapable of mounting any resistance to the British attack.
Messine really marked the end of large scale offensive mining operations and defensive tactics began to shift. Tunnelling Companies were increasingly used to construct enormous subterranean systems of accommodation, headquarters, dressing stations and subways. During the final British Offensive in 1918 their knowledge of explosives, attention to detail and safety saw them remove about 2.5 million pounds of explosives from German mines and booby traps.
The fighting spirit and technical efficiency [of the Tunnellers] has advanced the reputation of the whole Corps of Royal Engineers.
Field Marshal Douglas Haig