About This Unit
The 1st Tunnelling Company had been formed by splitting the original draft of Mining Corps (of battalion plus size) into three Companies, in August 1916.
Recruited in Australia the 4th Tunnelling Company was disbanded on arrival in France mid 1916 and all its personnel transferred to augment the 1st Tunnelling Company.
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The Mining Corps was disbanded in October 1916, but the Tunnelling Companies persisted within the Engineers and played key roles - in particular the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company at Hill 60 which formed a key part of the offensive mining operations in the battle of Messines in June 1917.
Mining and tunnelling operations had an excellent fit with operations in the early stages of the war when it was largely static in nature, when artillery machine guns and barbed wire paralysed any notion of a manoeuvre battle.
Offensive mining involved sinking shafts under the enemy's front line and diggin a chamber at the end to be filled with explosives which were fired to disrupt the enemy defensive positions and shock and stun the defenders as an immediate precursor to attack. This form of attack was highly dangerous as each side countermined the other using 'camouflets' (sub surface explosions) to collapse tunnels and allow the ingress of infantry to attack and kill the tunnellers in a hideous and claustrophobic environment deep undergound and generally in darkness save for whatever feeble lighting could be managed.
Defensive mining involved the construction of underground galleries and chambers to shelter personnel from the devastation inflicted by Artillery above ground. One of the biggest problems they had to deal with was the water table and preventing ingress of water into the tunnels and chambers. Elaborate tunnels were constructed under the battlefield even at places like Fromelles where the water table was so high, defensive fieldworks were constructed above ground in the form of breastworks. A superb exhibition of equipment used in tunnelling is held in the town museum.
These tactics had variable results. On the first day of the Somme on 1 July 1916, the British fired a number of large mines, most famously at La Boiselle. Although the explosion achieved its aim, the attackers (Kitcheners 'Pals' Battalions of Tyneside Irish) were engaged by German machine guns 2000m away on their flank, and the defenders although shocked and stunned, were able to man the rim of the crater. The attacking force was decimated. La Bosielle craters, "Lochnagar" and "The Glory Hole", exist to this day in mute testimony to the sheer power unleashed that day, albeit in vain.
This eye witness account by a British Pilot named Lewis, who was flying overhead at the time, gives some idea of the effect of these weapons:
The whole earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the air. There was an ear-splitting roar, drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4000 feet [1220 meteres]. There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air … then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris. A moment later came the second mine.
Lewis, quoted in Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme, London, 1977, p.120
The two most stunning successes were at Vimy Ridge (Canadians) who effected the first major victory over the Germans in April 1917, and the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917.
At Vimy, the Canadians put as many as 10,000 men underground in a preliminary defensive phase. They were able to burst out of the ground through specially built tunnells, opened by prepared charges called 'Wombats' (presumably by someone with some knowledge of Australian fauna), that provided elongated trenches across no mans land so troops could advance along protected approaches right on the German positions and overwhelm the defenders, instead of the usual dreaded advance across no man's land in the face of withering machine gun fire.
Later that year in June, General Plumer (British) famously began his orders with the opening remarks "Gentlemen, we may not write history tomorrow, but we will certainly change the geography". They did both and secured a stunning victory.
Australian and New Zealand Infantry Divisions took part in the attack near Messines itself, and the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company fired the mines at the northern end of the line of 21 that blew the top off Whyteshete Ridge and killed an estimated 10,000 defenders, an absolutely staggering notion.
Defensive operations again manifest themselves most significantly in the town of Arras in northern France and not far from Vimy Ridge. Defnsive operations are about protection and concealment. The terrain is eminently suitable for tunnelling and mining. The countryside is defined by the extensive chalk seams (the same chalk seam that has created the famous white cliffs of Dover in the UK) . Chalk is easy to cut and dig and needs very little revetment - it is largely self supporting.
The British were informed by their French Allies of the existence of a series of underground quarries and limestone cave formations under the town of Arras. They set the New Zealand Tunnellers to work, connecting the labyrinth of underground caves and quarries. The result was a vast self-contained subterranean barracks concealed from enemy observation and fire. They concealed 25,000 men in preparation for the Arras Offensive in the northern Spring of 1917. A similar network connected with nearby Vimy Ridge which largely facilitated the Canadian success in April 1917. Vimy was unfortunately the only part of the Offensive that went to plan and achieved its objectives.
Both Vimy Ridge and the ‘Wellington Quarries’ under Arras may be inspected by contemporary tourists. They are a spectacular testament to the dangerous craft of the Miners and Tunnellers.
Once the war shifted in tempo to one of manoeuvre in the summer of 1918, the scope for mining and tunnelling diminished, but the Sappers continued to support Commonwealth operations.
With the rest of the AIF out of the line after Montbrehain on 5 October, for rest and reinforcement, 1 Tunneling Company featured in one of the very last major actions of the war, supporting an assault river crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal near Orrs, France, on 4 Novemberr 1918.
In this action the British units engaged won a total of four Victoria Crosses and suffered some 1500 KIA, including the British Poet Laureate Wilfred Owen MC. The 1st Tunneling Company lost four members KIA that day. making them among the last Australian KIA of the war, and the easternmost on the Western Front as far as the author can determine.
A fascinating but often dangerous legacy has been left behind by the tunnellers. Numbers of mines that were set were never fired, or failed to fire. There were some 25 prepared along Whyteshete Ridge of which only 19 were detonated. German records were largely destroyed during WW2 bombing raids. The spontaneous detonation of one of the 'missing' mine in 1955 and a number of instances of tunnel of gallery collapses revived an interest in undertanding what still existed underground. A joint UK / French undertaking, called the Durand Group is involved with mapping the tunnels and where they find them, disarming and clearing out any reamining explosives. A link to their website is located in the sidebar.
(C) Steve Larkins, January 2015
Battle/ Campaign/ Involvement
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