Miners’ deadly task blows the Great War wide open

A  tunneller at work in a cramped gallery, less than four feet in height.
A tunneller at work in a cramped gallery, less than four feet in height.

The image of men going 'over the top' in the Great War is a very familiar one to most of us, writes John Duncan (Newbattle at War).

However, beneath the feet of these men, tens of thousands of miners fought and died in a clandestine and often barbaric war. These men, most of them coal miners, were arranged into Royal Engineer Tunnelling Companies.

By 1916 the manpower situation was becoming critical and conscription had been introduced to bolster numbers in the Army. However, a balance had to be struck.

The war industry was consuming vast amounts of coal, the pits were struggling to keep pace due to the shortage of miners away at the wall. It was, therefore, decided to exempt miners from military service. But it was decided that any man who wished to be considered for enlistment as a tunneller was to be given the opportunity to enlist.

One such man was my Great Uncle William Duncan from Newtongrange. In June, 1916 he approached the infamous Mungo Mackay, pit manager at the Lady Victoria, and obtained a letter from him stating he was an experienced miner and wished to become a tunneller at the pay rate of six shillings a day – six times the rate for an infantry man. Armed with this he attended the Colliery Court in The Grange, Edinburgh and was duly approved to join the RE. Two short weeks later, William was in uniform on the Somme, digging under the German lines with 183 Tunnelling Company.

The reference to 6/- was perhaps a safeguard for William. On arrival at the front, a number of men discovered that they had been designated Tunnellers Mates at 2s 6d rather than Tunnellers at 6s a day.

To them this was an insult and an injustice, which they addressed in typical miners’ fashion. A senior man was appointed to speak to ‘management’ and in the meantime they downed tools, effectively a strike. Despite being threatened with a court martial by a Sergeant, the consequences of which they didn’t seem to grasp, they stuck to their guns for their money.

Perhaps fortunately, one of the Company officers understood the way of the miners, and rather than have them all court martialled for mutiny, punishable by death, he opted to have all the men paid 6/- and gave them a stern lecture regarding their future conduct. There were a few pale faces when they learned they could indeed have been shot for mutiny.

It would be with 250 Tunnelling Company in 1917 that William and others would leave an huge and indelible mark on the landscape of Flanders.

A huge British offensive was planned for June/July, 1917 and as part of that attack a vast network of tunnels were to be dug and huge mines planted under the German lines on the Messines Ridge near Ypres. Over the winter and spring work progressed at great speed.

British and Australian sappers dug their way towards the German lines at great personal danger to themselves.

An unbelievable distance of 5,964 yards of galleries were dug, some as deep as 120 feet underground, penetrating the deadly blue clay layer, which were thought by the Germans to be unworkable.

However, the allied engineers confounded this theory, and despite many ‘near misses’ and close calls with German tunnellers, by the June 7, 1917 a total of 21 mines were ready to blow.

The largest had a mind boggling 94,000 lb (42 tons) of ammonal explosive. On the morning of June 7, the artillery fire was lifted half an hour before dawn, and as the troops waited in the silence for the offensive to begin, some of the troops reportedly heard birds singing. The plunger was pressed down setting off the first mine, followed by the other in rapid succession.

The noise from the explosion was the loudest ever heard on the planet and felt as far away as London. The soil rose thousands of feet into the air like a giant tree before plummeting to earth. The shock wave knocked men over in the British trenches. They picked themselves up and advanced to the German trenches and captured them.

Approximately 10,000 German soldiers are found to have been killed and thousands other are captured. They’re simply unable to fight.

To this day the vast craters caused by the explosions can still be seen. One at Spanbroekmolen is now the Pool of Peace.