Down Memory Lane

A group of British tunnellers during WW1
A group of British tunnellers during WW1

The image of men going ‘over the top’ in the Great War is a very familiar one to most of us.

However, beneath the feet of these men, tens of thousands of miners fought and died in a clandestine and often barbaric war.

So how did miners come to be tunnellers? As early as the winter of 1914 it was clear to the General Staff of both the Allies and Germans that trench warfare was here to stay. Frontal assaults had been proved to be costly and largely ineffective. There had to be a different way to breach the stalemate.

The method chosen was not new. Military tunnelling and mining had been around for centuries, used as part of siege warfare. The Germans were first off the mark. They set off a mine under Indian troops causing many casualties, and panicked the men into retreat.

In response the British decided to raise companies of tunnellers and placed their trust in the somewhat eccentric Tory MP Major John Norton-Griffiths, or Empire Jack as he was christened. Initially the men were recruited from the ranks of Manchester sewer workers, or clay kickers as they were known, in reference to their method of cutting clay tunnels.

Recruitment was rapid as was military training. Let’s just say it was basic at best. Men who were working underground as civilians in the UK on 17 February, were underground at Givenchy only four days later. They were effectively civilians working under Army control.

Read more of John Duncan’s feature in this week’s Advertiser. On sale now.