We’ve all heard of the Hooge crater – an explosion that could be heard from London. But this book by Simon Jones sheds new light (pun not intended) on the countless other underground activities during the First World War, most of which remain little known to the general public.
While it was only really in the twentieth century that warfare expanded to fighting in the air, fighting underground has a much longer heritage. There are countless examples of medieval armies tunnelling underneath enemy fortresses in attempts to break the deadlock of siege warfare. And once the war on the Western Front settled down into stalemate in 1914, taking the war underground soon became an option for breaking the deadlock. It’s a common theme in military history that when maneouvre warfare beds down into stalemate, commanders invariably look for leftfield options to re-energise the offensive.
The British Army began the First World War with less experience and expertise in underground warfare than France and Germany, both of which had more experience of continental siege warfare. Apart from a few experimental exercises in the early years of the twentieth century, the only expertise in underground warfare was that borrowed from the north-east mining community. Jones tells us of an amusing encounter where a north-east MP demonstrated to Lord Kitchener – himself an Engineer, who might have been expected to understand more than most – what a mole was. The British mining operations were, essentially, learnt on the job. The BEF did very well to control mining at Army level, ensuring that effort was concentrated and not wasted, and the military made good use of civilian capabilities. On this last point, Jones argues that the British tradition of amateur military service enabled civilians to contribute more to the military than in the rigidly professional German army.
Mining itself is a pretty hazardous profession at the best of times, but in a wartime context the dangers were multiplied. There was always the risk of collapses, and on occasion British and German tunnels inadvertantly merged, resulting in underground firefights. Sapper William Hackett was awarded the only tunnelling Victoria Cross of the war, for a deed on 22 and 23 June 1916, near Givenchy. In a collapse Hackett was trapped along with several other sappers. When rescuers managed to finally reach them, Hackett refused to leave the remaining seriously injured tunneller, saying, “I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first”, a phrase that epitomises the spirit of miners. According to Jones the military authorities initially feared the socialist tendencies of the miners, but found that they had extremely strong values of cameraderie and dedication.
There were frequently misunderstandings between different Corps about the strengths and weaknesses of underground warfare. In particular the infantry and engineers seem to have found it difficult to find a consensus on how to co-ordinate exploding mines with infantry attacks. In some cases infantry officers feared that falling debris would injure their men – fears that were largely unfounded. In fact, delaying infantry attacks until long after the explosions lost the vital element of surprise – much the same as lengthy and heavy artillery barrages merely alerted the enemy to an impending advance.
As well as mines and offensive tunnelling, engineers also went underground to build secure accomodaton and communications – I can remember visiting Thompson’s Cave at Arras, a huge underground area that housed a main dressing station.
Jones makes ample use of original trench maps, and in particular some illustrations taken from contemporary publications – British, French and German – that demontrate mining tactics, equipment and instruments. Some impressive research has obviously gone into this book. This is not purely a ‘history of first world war tunnelling’, but places it in the larger context – historically and geologically – of military history.