Efficacy



With the war of movement giving way to a system of almost continuous trenches stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea in late November 1914, those who had predicted a long drawn out war appeared to be correct. The tactics of fire and manoeuvre were now replaced by siege warfare. With no open flank and the stopping power of modern weapons, particularly artillery and the heavy machine-gun along with the prodigious use of barbed wire, the advantage lay overwhelmingly with the defender.


Faced with this situation the idea of mining, on the British side at least, occurred, arguably, to several people simultaneously, both at home, in the Dominions and on the Western Front itself. The driving force in Britain came from John Norton Griffiths, engineering contractor and Conservative Member of Parliament for Wednesbury. He believed a system of tunnelling known as "clay kicking" or "working on the cross" , which was then being used on one of his contracts for the Manchester Corporation on a new drainage system,  would be ideally suited to the conditions of Northern France and Flanders (1). The problem he faced was in convincing the War Office of the value of such an idea. However, 'the first official move in mine warfare on the British side', according to the official history of the war (2), an account also supported by Captain W. Grant Grieve (3), was that made by General Sir Henry Rawlinson on 3 December 1914 in which he called for the formation of a special battalion made up of sappers and miners already serving with the army to begin such a task. The C-in-C, Sir John French, did not agree. Mining was the reserve of the Royal Engineers and it would remain so.

 
The overriding factor that should perhaps be considered at this point is that the western allies, Britain and France, unlike the autocratic regimes of the central and eastern empires, were liberal democracies and so therefore the political/domestic element in the general war effort was far more acute. While Germany became a military dictatorship as the war progressed, the military of Britain and France could be reined in by the politicians who were in turn influenced by public opinion. Almost everywhere the German Army was on allied soil and so the impetus was on the Allies to drive the enemy back beyond its own borders as quickly as  possible and to liberate friendly territory. As a consequence they were under pressure to maintain an offensive posture and so to this end, despite initial misgivings among the die-hards within the British Army, anything that appeared to give the initiative to the allied cause was considered. In the beginning however, mining on an organised scale would take some convincing.


Half a world away in early 1915 a professor of geology at Sydney University by the name of Edgeworth David, along with his colleague at Melbourne University, Professor Ernest Skeats, proposed the formation of a mining corps to the Federal Government of Australia when the fighting in France became 'bogged down'.This was accepted and the Australian Mining Corps was born, which became three tunnelling companies when it arrived in France and were ransferred to the General Staff (4). Edgeworth David gained a commission in the engineers and would later prove an invaluable asset to mining operations on the Western Front when he became the geological advisor to the Controller of Mines of the First, Second and Third Armies in September 1916 and later on in the Inspector of Mines office at G.H.Q. (5).

 
While these suggestions were being considered the German Army had forged ahead with its plans to undermine the allies and, on the 20 December 1914, exploded ten small mines under the Indian Corps holding the Givenchy-Festubert front. Ironically, British sappers, in support of a proposed offensive by the Dehra Dun Brigade, had sunk an experimental shaft and run a gallery some seventy feet deep to within thirteen feet of the German lines when a trench mortar attack had destroyed the trench in which the mine entrance was located and the mine had to be abandoned (6). The confusion and pandemonium caused by the German mines (something that will be discussed in the following chapter), acted as a catalyst. Unrealistically G.H.Q. gave instructions for R.E. field companies to begin offensive mining in retaliation to the German blows. Unfortunately the R.E. did not have the training or the manpower at the end of 1914 to undertake the task on the scale that military mining required. Nevertheless, attempts were made by the 20th Fortress Company to sink a shaft near Armentières in early January 1915. There were immense problems with water seepage and the outdated pumps could not handle it. In a further twist a sign was lifted above the German lines, which read 'in  perfect English . . . "no good you mining here, it can't be done. We've tried" (7). The mine was duly abandoned.


A number of incidents in January 1915 however, made it clear to G.H.Q. that the Germans were mining 'on a definite system' (8). Reports from the infantry at the front of hearing noises underground were given support on 25 January when a deserter came into the British lines with a report that German pioneers had again undermined British front-line positions around the Cuinchy sector. Shortly afterwards some twenty small mines were blown followed by the now inevitable infantry assault upon the front-line trenches. The situation was now becoming serious and something needed to be done. However, the initiative in this regard came from the War Office and not from G.H.Q. itself.


By this time, the idea proposed by Norton Griffiths for the use of clay kickers had reached the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, who instructed him by telegram to report directly to the War Office. Once there Norton Griffiths, who by now had been granted the rank of Major in the 2nd King Edward's horse, went into a detailed explanation of his proposal for the use of such a system of mining providing the ground was suitable. He was ordered to France immediately to make an inspection and to discuss the matter with the Engineer-in Chief, Brigadier-General George Henry Fowke. Following these discussions and a meeting with the sceptical C-in-C, Sir John French, approval 'in principle' was given from the War Office for the organisation of special tunnelling companies made up of specialised volunteers and men already in service with mining knowledge. The organisation of tunnelling companies - which Norton Griffiths, Fowke, and his assistant Colonel R. N. Harvey (9) along with other engineering staff had devised - called for eight companies each made up of five officers and two-hundred and sixty nine men, with general labour being provided by infantrymen who were to be temporarily attached.


Although many front-line commanders called for protection from German mining activity, there was by no means a universal acceptance of this type of warfare among senior British Officers. There was a belief that if tunnelling could be avoided then the Germans would avoid it too. However, as the deadlock set in it became German tactical doctrine to undermine the enemy where opposing lines were one hundred yards apart or less (10). Throughout the first year of mining, referred to in the Official History as the 'first phase', there were those who thought it was a waste of manpower and material resources that could be better put to use elsewhere as the results from mining activity did little to aid the overall war effort. In the early stages, during 1915, miners were under the control of local infantry commanders who 'sometimes tried . . . to prevent mining' to maintain the status quo of their particular section of front, believing that to initiate such activity would only bring about countermining by the enemy (11). What should also be considered is that mining by its very nature can only be employed in siege conditions and pressure was on the British and French to expel the German Army from France and Belgium as quickly as possible. Mining took time and despite the static nature of the Western Front at the end of 1914 there were those who still believed that it would not last and that a break-through would occur sooner rather than later. Added to this was the fear that the introduction to the front of 'untrained, fiercely freethinking miners' (12) would quickly turn into an undisciplined mob when under fire. Such fears, however, were to prove groundless.


Despite original misgivings as to the value of mining by many senior officers at G.H.Q. its growing importance as a strategic weapon of war, given the conditions that prevailed on the Western Front, are illustrated by its rapid expansion from the eight companies originally envisaged. While it is true that the British front line had dramatically increased by the time of the Somme offensive, the size of the tunnelling force was, at this point, four times its original composition. By July 1916 its numbers had swelled to include 25 British, 3 Canadian, 3 Australian and 1 New Zealand Company. By the time of the Messines operation in June 1917 there were some 25,000 miners involved on the British side with twice that number of infantrymen in support.


Initially at least, British mining objectives were largely governed by the need to give protection to front-line positions from German underground attacks and by the lack of an organised and experienced mining force. With the exception of the Hill 60 operation (which will be looked at in more detail in chapter three) mining operations during 1915 were largely of a defensive nature. However, Captain Grant Grieve, who was a tunneller himself, argues that most of the work carried out during this period must be written off. Much of the work undertaken was 'disjointed' and 'spasmodic' and lacked 'co-ordination' (13). Nevertheless, valuable lessons had been learned. Equipment was improved and the mining organisation as a whole was restructured and centralised. A new staff structure was approved by the War Office to commence on the 1 January and the post of Inspector of Mines was created. Each Army Headquarters now had a Controller of Mines (14) and all were directly responsible to the Inspector. This greater independence meant that tunnelling companies would remain more or less in the same sector rather than having to move each time a brigade moved under the old system and so greater continuity could be achieved. Mining schools were set up to give practical experience to new arrivals not used to mining under such conditions. This was quickly followed by a mine rescue school under the direction of Lieutenant-Colonel Dale Logan, who had a 'special and wide ranging experience of miners' diseases and mine rescue work (15).


Equipment improved quite dramatically and was usually created or brought by officers serving within the tunnelling companies or those associated with mining. Captain James Pollock, who took charge of 2nd Army Mining School, was a Professor of physics at Sydney University. He designed the geo-telephone (16) for underground listening of which several were made. In addition, within the Australian Mining Corps, Captain Stanley Hunter was the inventor of a boring machine he called the 'Wombat'. This was powered by compressed air and was mainly used for drilling 61/2-inch diameter holes under enemy galleries for the purpose of demolition (17). As galleries became longer the need for air became paramount. Initially, after much older, noisy pumps had been discarded, air supply was provided by a large pair of bellows connected to a given length of pipe and was taken down to the face by the tunneller. This meant that a man had to keep pumping the bellows for an entire 8-hour shift and air supply became a problem as such men tired. This system was replaced with electric pumps of the 'quiet type'. Perhaps one of the most practical tools was tubing. This consisted of a series of steel rings that could be interconnected and driven into the ground where water or running sand was a major problem and allowed a shaft to be sunk to a depth where tunnelling could begin in earnest.


A major problem for tunnellers was gas. Following an explosion of a mine or camouflet (18), carbon monoxide would be produced and would linger within a gallery. Undetectable by either sight or smell this would prove fatal to a miner if exposed to its effects for too long. Once a mine or charge had been fired tunnellers had to enter the gallery affected as quickly as possible. Tunnellers wearing "proto" sets  - special breathing apparatus - entered the mine first to inspect the damage or to rescue any men who may be trapped. To this end men were selected and sent to the Mine Rescue School to be trained in the use of this equipment and in rescue techniques. However, gas often lay in trapped pockets only to be released when the atmospheric pressure equalised. To help combat this and to give the men underground advanced warning of carbon monoxide, mice were initially used as they are sensitive to its effects. The mice were later replaced with canaries as they showed much greater sensitivity to the gas and, providing the bird's claws were pared they would fall from their perch, thereby giving much earlier warning than the mice (19). If the canary's claws were too long then it would grip the perch in an attempt to withstand the effects of the gas and its value as an early warning device would be worthless as it would give false indications to miners resulting in unnecessary deaths. Therefore, in a direct way the life of a tunneller 'depended on the length of a canary's claws (20). Despite such precautions miners still lost their lives due to the effects of gas, as a report by 171 company clearly illustrates. On 18 April 1915 following the explosion of a camouflet on an enemy gallery two sappers descended into the gallery without orders and lost their lives as a result of asphyxiation (21).


Tunnellers not only undermined enemy positions but also constructed dugouts and underground chambers which housed telephone exchanges, battalion headquarters and provided a staging points in which an assaulting force could wait in relative safety and secrecy before an offensive. The most elaborate of these was the complex of tunnels in the Ypres salient around Mount Sorrel. To aid such tasks and given the nature and conditions of war on the Western Front, geology came to play an important role, particularly in regard to mining. Geology was used to aid mining in a number of ways. Firstly to determine whether of not mining was at all possible in a given area due to underground conditions; to gain, in advance, information of the type of material that would be encountered and the depth to which mining could be carried out; and by calculating the latter it would be possible to estimate the length of time needed to complete a given mining objective (22).


The importance of geology as a military aid does not appear to have been fully envisaged by the British General Staff during the early stages of the war. The Germans on the other hand had recognised the value that geology offered and had 20 geologists on the Western Front in early 1916. By the end of the war this number had risen to 100. The British by contrast had only 3 by mid 1918. However, there were also a number of qualified geologists serving with the tunnelling companies who could bring their talents to bear at a localised level. Two junior officers serving with the Australian Mining Corps were temporarily transferred to G.H.Q in October 1918 to help prepare geological maps (23). Despite the disparity in numbers the British were first to organise a geological staff and although this was rather small they were aided by the fact that 'the geology of Northern France and Flanders is not very complex' (24). The La Bassée Canal is more or less the dividing line between two distinct geological formations. To the north the land is mainly water logged and its composition is made up of 'sandy loam upon beds of saturated sand with occasional pebbles and sometimes shaly stone above blue clay' (25). Although silent working in this area was possible, the main difficulty was with the water. Mining in this type of ground was extremely problematic as in the early stages steel tubing was not available to aid in the sinking of shafts. However, pilling, a method by which close-boarded timbers were driven into the ground before any material was excavated, was used at this time with some success. To the south of the canal chalk appears nearer to the surface. The problems this brought was the difficulty of silent working, as the chalk had to be chipped or in some cases blasted away.


Whatever the difficulties, most tunnelling officers at least knew the overall objectives of mining and its strategic use, even if G.H.Q. in the early days, did not. At its most basic, the purpose of mining was to undermine the enemy's front-line fortifications and in turn prevent him from doing the same. Mining therefore, as Captain Graham of 185 Tunnelling Company outlined, was governed by four main factors. 1.The importance of the position to be attacked. 2. The distance from the objective (although given the close proximity of the opposing lines this was usually taken as read). 3. Its strategic use (morale and attrition). 4. The conditions on the ground. The tactical aim was in placing and exploding a mine at the moment of attack with the objective of gaining the greatest benefit in terms of surprise and demoralisation (26). This latter objective became possible to a much greater degree from the beginning of 1916 with the reorganisation and centralisation of the tunnelling force and the beginning of offensive mining on a larger scale towards more clearly defined objectives in conjunction with other arms. The significance of mining within a wider strategic framework was realised on 7 June 1917 with the successful assault on the Messines Ridge (27) that met all its objectives with comparatively few casualties. The Messines operation was the crowning point and finale of the tunnelling force, which had been bought through bitter experience and much innovation on the part of the men since the beginning of 1915. However, many trials awaited them before June 1917.


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(1). Barrie, Alexander. (1961). War Underground. London. Tom Donovan. P. 24.

(2). Brig.-Gen. Edmonds, Sir J. E. (1927). Military Operations: France and Belgium 1915. Vol. 1.  P. 33.London. Macmillan.

(3). Capt. Grant Grieve, W and Newman, B. (1936). Tunnellers. London. Herbert Jenkins. P. 25.

(4). Professor Branagan, David, 'The Australian Mining Corps in World War 1', Proceeding Australian Institute of Mining, Mineralogy and Metallurgy. Vol. 292. No. 9. December 1987. P. 41.

(5). W. B. R. King, 'Geological Work on the Western Front', The Geographical Journal, Vol. 54. No. 4. July-
December 1919. P. 201.

(6). Grant Grieve. P. 26.

(7). Barrie. P. 26.

(8). Brig.-Gen. Edmonds. Vol. 1915. P. 29.

(9). Harvey became Inspector of Mines in Jan. 1916, with the temporary rank of Brigadier-General.

(10). Dir. Mike Fox. Foxy Films and Parapet Productions. The Underground War. Channel 4. (1998).

(11). Ashworth, T. (1980). Trench Warfare. London. Macmillan. P. 200.

(12). Barrie. P. 32.

(13). Grant Grieve. P. 73.

(14). At this time the British had three armies in France.

(15). Grant Grieve. P. 73.

(16). Not to be confused with the French made 'geophone', which will be discussed later.

(17). Branagan. 'Australian Mining Corps', P. 43.

(18). This was a small charge placed inside a gallery with the intention of collapsing an enemy counter-mine without breaking through to the surface.

(19). Bryan Frayling, 'Tunnellers', Royal Engineers Journal,Vol. 102. No. 2. August 1988. P. 171.

(20). Grant Grieve. Tunnellers. P. 322.

(21). WO 95/335. 171 Tunnelling Company RE. 18/4/15.

(22). Lieutenant-Colonel E. P. F. Rose, 'Geology in War', Royal Engineers Journal, Vol. 92. June 1978. P. 184-5.

(23). Rose, 'Geology in War', P. 182.

(24). King, 'Geological Work on the Western Front', P. 203.

(25). Grant Grieve. Tunnellers. P. 40.

(26). Capt. Graham, H. W. (1927). The Life of a Tunnelling. Company Hexham. J. (printer). P. 8.

(27). This operation will be discussed in detail in chapter 3.


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