Tunnelling Companies in the Great War

Everybody damns the Tunneller; GHQ because he invariably has his job finished months before the rest of the Army are ready for the ‘Great Push’; Army troops because he invariably upsets all their preconceived notions as to the safety of trenches and dugouts; Divisional troops damn him because he is outside their sphere of influence; Brigade troops because he refuses to move when they do and because he knows by heart that part of the line to which they come as strangers; Brass hats because they dislike his underground habits; Regimental officers because he refuses to allow them to use his deep and snug dugouts; Subalterns because of his superior knowledge; Tommy because he is the direct cause of numerous extra fatigues and – alas that it should be so – because of his extra pay; and last and loudest, the Boche damn him because of his earnest and unceasing attempts at uplifting and converting them into surprised angels. It is also owing to his success in this noble work of the missionary that the Tunneller is highly respected by all branches of the forces.

[E Synton, 1918]

Undermining the positions of one’s enemy is one of the most ancient of martial activities. For almost 3000 years before 1914, and even after the invention of gunpowder and the inexorable development of artillery, it was a prime siege-breaking technique; indeed tunnelling is still employed across the world to the present day. The Great War, however, produced the greatest siege the world had ever seen, and its four years of stasis presented a conflict environment that perfectly favoured the skills of the military miner. By the end of May 1915 a continuous trench line, effectively an unbroken pair of fortress walls with no vulnerable flanks, stretched from the North Sea coast to the Swiss frontier. It was to grow into a huge network of defence-in-depth earthworks. With both sides equally well dug-in and deploying comparable troop numbers and armaments, neither was to prove strong enough to force a decisive breakthrough. Siege conditions demanded siege tactics: as the ground was everywhere mineable, the Western Front was a prime candidate for underground warfare.

Royal Engineer practice mines being blown as part of a training exercise near Chatham, Kent in 1887. REM.

By a curious twist of fate, military mining against British and Dominion troops began at Givenchy-lès-la Bassée, nearby the site of the new Tunnellers Memorial. On 21 December 1914 the Germans secretly dug shallow tunnels across No Man’s Land and exploded ten small but deadly mines beneath the primitive trenches of the Indian Sirhind Brigade. As the news spread up and down the line, alarm increased: how could this new and unexpected threat be countered? It couldn’t – adequately – for at that time the British had no military mining corps. Further German blows in the new year spurred the British to react with uncharacteristic alacrity.

By March 1915 the first Tunnelling Companies had been formed and were at work in Flanders. By the close of that year mine warfare was more or less continuous wherever opposing trench lines lay within mutual striking distance. It had already become a 24- hour a day, 365-day a year operation. The man shown in the photo to the right is from 172 Tunnelling Company, the first unit William Hackett joined before being relocated to 254 TC in November 1915.

A section of 175 Tunnelling Company. Courtesy of Spellmount Books

A group of potential Tunnelling officers seated outside the RE Library, Chatham. REM

By mid-1916 the British had around 25,000 trained tunnellers. Almost twice that number of ‘attached infantry’ worked permanently alongside them acting as beasts of burden, fetching and carrying the many essential elements of mining paraphernalia, pumping air and water and removing spoil – the earth produced by the digging of the tunnels.

Parts of the Western Front became labyrinths of underground workings. Those troops not directly involved in tunnelling (including attached infantry) were allowed to know little of the aims of a mining scheme simply because the gestation of such endeavours could be so long – well over a year for the Messines offensive of 7 June 1917 – and so arduous, that leakage of information might lead not only to the wastage of colossal effort and the ruination of a plan, but the loss of many lives in the most hideous of circumstances: entombment, drowning, gassing or obliteration in cramped and claustrophobic galleries beneath no man’s land. Close relationships between tunnellers and their attached infantry were formed.

Listening

The tunnelling war was a game of blindfold cat and mouse. The only way to detect one’s enemy underground was by listening. In every tunnelling company considerable numbers of specially-selected men were employed solely on this vital task. Using at first just the naked ear and subsequently sensitive technical devices, listening became a highly developed and efficient art. Installed at the end of their tiny gallery, a trained listener would take notes of the compass bearing and estimated distance of suspect sounds. Comparing the notes of several listeners allowed triangulation of a sound’s origin, and thus an indication as to the location of the enemy, the direction he was heading, and the speed at which he was working. The favoured British listening aid was the Geophone (below). Employing two sensors a listener was able to ascertain the direction of hostile activity by moving the sensors until sound levels appeared equal in both ears. A compass bearing was then taken. When gauging distance only, both earpieces were plugged into a single sensor; this was a skill only gained by experience.
By the end of 1916 the scale of mine warfare had expanded to such an extent that there were not enough listeners to man every post, and central listening stations were devised. Working electronically like a telephone exchange, the signals from up to 36 remote sensors (Tele-geophones and Seismomicrophones) could be distinguished and recorded by just two men.

A sapper using a geophone. Military Mining 1923

Mines and Camouflets

The ultimate effect of an offensive mine, an underground explosion designed to destroy a specific surface target, and usually forming a crater, was dependent upon the quantity, type and quality of explosive used, the nature of the soil and subsoil in which it had been planted, and the depth of the charge. During 1916 one thousand five hundred mines were exploded on the British front, but many thousands of lesser defensive charges were also blown. Known as camouflets (derived from French mining terminology), these were small, controlled and localised underground blasts generally designed not to break the surface and form craters, but to destroy a strictly limited area of underground territory – and its occupants. Two basic techniques were employed. The first was to plant one’s camouflet in one’s own tunnel, a listening post, or in a small spur which was specially dug towards suspect enemy sounds. This was the preferred method in tough ground such as hard clay, or the resilient chalks of Picardy. The second method was more applicable in softer ground, especially in the sandy ridges and spurs of the Ypres (Ieper) Salient. Here, a ‘torpedo’ or ‘Cylinder’ was used. These were specially prefabricated self-contained explosive charges housed in a tube, designed specifically for this kind of warfare. Kept in a store at the rear of tunnel systems, at least one torpedo was always prepared for action, fully charged, primed with a detonator, and ready for instant use. Torpedoes were also used from shallow tunnels to destroy trenches and dugouts.

Cylinder for bore-hole charges

Heavier charges were also used to damage larger areas of underground territory, the purpose being to either destroy substantial sections of hostile tunnels and the occupants, or make the ground so shattered that it was difficult to work. These bigger blows often cratered the surface. The problem with this kind of attack was that one’s own tunnel systems could be equally seriously damaged. Such tactics were used only in extremis, when the hostile threat was acute. This, therefore, was defensive mining, devised and adapted to protect ones own web of tunnels from enemy action. It came to be the main occupation of tunnellers on both sides. Thus a private and secret war was gradually created beneath the battlefields. With improvements in listening and defensive practices, successful offensive attacks against surface targets became less and less frequent. Most mine warfare came to take the form of a clandestine and barbaric battle with tunneller fighting tunneller with camouflets. Hand-to-hand fighting was also not unknown.

Clay-kicking

Clay-kicking (also known as ‘working on the cross’) was a specialist method used in England for driving tunnels for sewer, road and railway works through clay-based geology. In late 1914 the technique was proposed to the army by the creator of the Tunnelling Companies, John Norton-Griffiths, a British engineering entrepreneur who at that time was employing clay-kickers on one of his company’s contracts: the refurbishment of Manchester’s main sewer. Norton-Griffiths persuaded the military that this technique – and his men – were perfect for the clays of Flanders. By February 1915, and as a result of continuing severe enemy mining action, the suggestion was at last taken up. The first batch of kickers – called “Moles’ by Norton-Griffiths – left Manchester on a Thursday; by the following Monday they were already working underground in France – at Givenchy.

Illustration of clay-kicking method. Drawn by Andy Gammon

In employing the power of the legs to work a specially shaped and finely sharpened spade known as a ‘grafting tool’, clay-kicking allowed a small tunnel to be driven quickly and with minimal effort. The tool was pushed rather than kicked into the working ‘face’ with the feet, each ‘spit’ of clay being then levered out by a prising movement. Progress was thus much faster than digging by hand. Most importantly, however, the technique was almost silent in its application. Digging with a pick or mattock demanded that the earth be struck, creating noise which could be heard by enemy listeners. The Germans never used clay-kicking as it was not a technique employed in civil engineering; indeed, it remained unknown to them for the entire war. German Pioniere thus continued to work with small – and noisy – mattocks. The contrast in digging techniques was a key factor in the ultimate Commonwealth dominance of the subterranean battleground in clay geology. A typical clay-kicking team consisted of a ‘kicker’, who worked at the face, a ‘bagger’, who filled sandbags with the ‘spoil’, the lumps of clay, and a ‘trammer’, who trammed the bags out of the gallery on a small, rubber-tyred trolley on rails; on the return journey this was employed to bring timber in. A clay-kicking team ‘grafted’ for six hours, the shift working on a rotational basis, with the men taking turns at each job. Such teams became close-knit units and stayed together as long as injury, sickness or fate allowed. They were also responsible for timbering the tunnel. Having cut out the rough shape with the grafting tool, a ‘push-pick’ was used to trim the clay to the perfect size to allow a timber ‘sett’ to be installed. A sett consisted of four pieces of wood : a sole for the floor, two side trees (also know as legs), and a cap. The sole went in first, the legs next, and finally the cap. Because of the need for silent working no nails or screws were used; the sole and cap timbers were sawn with small rebated ‘steps’; these located the two legs so that the geophysical pressure of the swelling clays was all that was required to hold the sett firmly in place. Progress was made one sett at a time – nine inches. To encourage drainage the tunnel was always built on a slight uphill gradient of between 1:100 and 1:50. It is likely that the five-man party of which William Hackett was a member were employing clay-kicking to drive their tunnel towards the German lines.

The Zonnebeke sector near Ypres in 1919 showing a trench system with dugout/tunnel entrance. Johan Vandewalle

Shafts

The standard and most simple shafts were built entirely in timber and conformed to centuries-old designs. Although adequate in firm and dry conditions, the varying geological nature of the Flanders battlefields demanded new techniques to cope with the serious problem of bad ground, particularly the layer of quicksand known as the Kemmel Sands, an integral component of the geological make up of all the ridges around Ieper. For the Germans, occupying almost all the most advantageous positions on the ridge tops, this stratum was a serious headache. Tunnelling in the dry strata above the Kemmel Sands was simple, swift and easy, but sinking a shaft through the schwimmsands, as they were known (the British called them running sands), to reach the dry and firm clay geology beneath, was found to be unfeasible: the constantly shifting ground made timber structures almost impossible both to stabilise and waterproof. The sands, which were trapped between the dry stratum above and impervious clay beneath, were also under great geophysical pressure, and often ‘fountained’ when pierced. Believing that the British faced the same insoluble engineering problem, the Pioniere made few efforts to break through the schwimmsands until the spring of 1916.

Illustration of steel ‘tubbed’ shaft construction. Drawn by Andy Gammon

What the Germans had failed to realise was that their enemy had conquered the geology by using cylindrical steel shafts known as ‘tubbing’. Tubbing arrived in sections which were bolted together to form a watertight tube. These were sunk through the wet sands (see illustration above) to the dry clay beneath either by the gravitational action of their own weight, or by jacks. Once the steel had reached the dry clay it was again safe to continue the work in timber. The system was quick, simple, strong, stable and waterproof – and allowed the British to delve deep into the Flanders clay in many places where their enemy believed it to be impossible. Critically, the British first used steel shafts as early as May 1915 – almost a full year before the Pioniere. By the spring of 1916 when the Germans were forced to sink watertight shafts in steel (and concrete) because the British had started blowing deep mines, the subterranean war was effectively lost to them. In this ‘year of German ignorance’ the Tunnellers had been able to secretly drive many deep galleries and plant the greatest mines in the history of warfare.

A steel ‘tubbed’ shaft at Lancashire farm near Ypres

Gas

Underground, tunnellers faced many a threat: entombment, obliteration, health problems brought on by the workload, working environment and poor air quality; there was even the risk of drowning. But the biggest killer was actually gas poisoning; not the designed toxic vapour variety used in cloud and shell form by troops on the surface, but carbon monoxide (CO), an invisible, odourless and tasteless substance that was naturally produced by every explosive action – even the firing of a simple rifle bullet. In mines that broke the surface, or in the case of a shell burst, carbon monoxide quickly dissipated into the atmosphere; after an underground explosion, however, it is trapped – in the geology and in the tunnels.

Mine rescue team equipped with torches, bellows, short-range breathing gear, Novita oxygen resuscitation kit, Proto apparatus, ropes and a canary in a cage. REM

Carbon Mnoxide displaces oxygen in the blood. The process is cumulative, resulting in body tissues being gradually starved of oxygen and energy. Death, when it comes, is painless, gentle and insidious, but in the tunnels it was a terrifying prospect. With lowlevel concentrations men could be entirely unaware of its presence, allowing them to penetrate deep into a system before being affected. As little as 0.1 percent CO in air was dangerous, and it was found that a man at rest in an atmosphere of 0.15 percent CO would be affected after two hours, reducing to about forty minutes if working strenuously. A concentration of 0.2 percent caused loss of consciousness in around twenty-five minutes, and 0.3 percent in ten to fifteen minutes. If the gas was present in large quantities, a tunneller could be unconscious in a matter of moments – with little warning. The early symptoms were giddiness, shortness of breath and palpitations, with confusion following. There was then a loss of power in the limbs. When this stage was reached a little exertion would induce loss of consciousness.

Tunneller descending a shaft wearing Proto apparatus. A mouse or a canary would already have been used to detect the presence of carbon monoxide gas. This image shows Sapper 1057 Eugene Kelly (killed 11 April 1918) on duty with 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company in the Hulluch Tunnel near Loos-en-Gohelle. IWM

In extensive mine systems galleries were fitted with regulator doors, effectively producing a series of airlocks. The spread of gas could therefore be isolated so rescue work was simplified and tunnellers in unaffected areas could continue to operate. For rescue purposes several forms of self-contained breathing apparatus were used. However, it was first essential to find out whether the air below ground was ‘gassy’ or not. To achieve this Tunnellers employed the traditional practice of using canaries and mice. As both creatures have a much higher metabolic rate than humans, they are therefore more quickly affected by CO gas. Mice were superceded by canaries as signallers for their curling up in a corner of the cage was not sufficiently evident; a canary, however, was prone to fall off its perch, a more obvious indication of risk. The British eventually organised a highly developed system of rescue. In mining sectors no shaft was further than 200 metres from a station. Proto-men (named after the breathing kit they employed) were highly trained, hand picked men, selected for experience and coolness under pressure. Two men were on duty at all times. Apart from the rescue gear and oxygen reviving equipment each station contained: Ten electric miners lamps, six canaries (or mice) with four mobile cages and two living cages, one saw, one hand axe, three life lines, two mine stretchers, one trench stretcher, one Primus stove, two tins of café au lait, six hot water bottles, six blankets.

A mine rescue station in Flanders with a sapper ready for descent and other equipment prepared for use. IWM

When in spring 1917 the war became more mobile with the grand sequence of offensives of the Battles of Arras, Messines and Passchendaele, there was no longer a place for a tactic that depended upon total stasis for its employment. Offensive and defensive military mining largely ceased. Underground work continued unabated, however, with the Tunnellers concentrating on mined ‘deep dugouts’ for troop accommodation.

Typical deep dugout accommodation near Ypres: Martha House dugout as seen during an exploration of 1995. Johan Vandewalle

99 Responses to Tunnelling Companies in the Great War

  1. Very informative

  2. My grandfather was in the 178th tunnelling company. Has anyone any lists/photo’s of 178 tunnelling coy?
    Allan Taylor

    • This is so interesting. My grandfather Oliver Frank Field, was also with the 178th tunnelling company. He received the Military Medal in June 1916 but I am unable to find any citation. The family story is that he went back into a tunnel to rescue a comrade. As with so many of these brave men, he rarely spoke about his experiences so any information I can find out is wonderful.

  3. derrick davies

    very intresting

  4. Could you please inform me how I can find the names of all the British Tunnellers, my wife’s grandfather is beleived to have been a tunneller, he was a miner who joined the Army in 1914 and survived the war

  5. My Greatgrandfather was in the 175 tunn coy I have a photograph he looks similar to two people in the photograph on this website can anyone help?.
    His name was John Pryor DCM died 28 April 1916 formerly from the N Staffs Reg. lived in Swinton manchester

    • My Great Grandfather was also in the 175th and died on march 8th of the same year.

      I found a company that will go through the official records for a small fee and copy all documents relevant to your relative. For me they found my Great Grandfather – James Rowley’s recruitment forms and the 175th’s company diary which mentions his wounding.

  6. CERDIC WARRILLOW

    My wife’s uncle, Lieutenant Harold Riley M.C., was a member of the 250th Tunneling Company (also attached to 172nd. Co.). He was a BSc qualified mining engineer (London University)and one of his many responsibilities was commanding a group digging one of the tunnels under the Messines Ridge that was completed and exploded in June 1917. The 250th Company constructed 3 deep level mines there at Petit Bois, Peckham and Spanbroekmolen.
    Harold was badly wounded on 21 March 1918 on the first day of the Kaiser’s Spring offensive “Michael”, but survived the war. He died on 26 April 1981 at the age of 87.

  7. William John Greives Military Service WW1 – by his Grandson Tom Grieves
    On 3 Oct 2008, I was researching Grieves/Greives records on Ancestry.com and to my amazement found WW1 British Military Service records for a William John Greives – Sapper – Service Number 102472 (note the spelling). Further investigation revealed that the records related to my Grandfather. The records are unmistakeable as his records, because they cite Elizabeth Jane Redshaw as his wife and list his children except for Dorothy and my father Christopher who were both already married and away from William’s home at 59 Morgan St, Southwick, Sunderland.
    From William’s War Service Records, I have discovered that he joined the Royal Engineers on 8 Jun 1915 in London, and four days later on the 12 Jun 1915 he was already serving in France in the 170th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers. William’s son Christopher had already joined the British Army in the Northumberland Fusiliers 24th Battalion on 5 Jan 1915 and was undergoing military training before going to France in early January 1916. When he enlisted, William claimed his age was forty four years and six months, but he was probably about forty six, and lied to get under the 45 age limit, this was very common for the Tunnellers with possible collusion from the recruiters as they were looking for the most experienced miners. He was not given any military training; he was simply issued a uniform and possibly a rifle, and sent to the front lines. He was a coal miner in civilian life, so he needed no training to dig underground, and he was initially employed as a tunnellers mate at the rate of two shillings and two pence a day. The underground warfare had only recently started in January 1915, and both sides were fighting from trenches and saps on the surface, and digging tunnels and galleries under each other’s infantry trenches to set explosive mines to kill and maim each other and destroy each other’s defences.
    About seven weeks after arriving in Flanders on 23 Jul he remusterd to Sapper, and received the higher pay rate of 6 shillings a day. Three days later on 26 Jul 1915, he was caught sleeping whilst on sentry duty (possibly at an underground listening post), and was charged with this offence. After two weeks detention in location, he was Court Martialled, and sentenced to 2 years imprisonment with hard labour on 9 Aug 1915. His sentence was reduced to one year imprisonment with hard labour, and on 19 Aug he was released under an act of Parliament known as the Suspension Act that allowed for sentences to be suspended, and he returned to his unit to serve his sentence in “the field” and not be returned to England for imprisonment. He finished serving his sentence on 9 Aug 1916, and it seems that while he was under sentence he was probably given leave back to England and received full pay of 6 shillings a day.
    Very little else can be gleaned from the faded documents, except that he served until 29 Dec 1917 when he was discharged as “No longer physically fit for War Service”. He obviously avoided any further disciplinary action during his service and served with honour, as he was awarded the three common Great War medals, The 1915 Star, the War Medal and the Victory Medal. In 1917 at the time of his discharge, he would have been aged about fifty. In December of 1929 he died in the Hull Workhouse a victim of the Great Depression.

    • Christine Irvine

      My great grandfather also served in the 170th Tunnelling Company. He was awarded the DCM for conspicuous gallantry during a tunnelling operation at Cuinchy in August 1915 and died in May 1916 trying to get his men out of a tunnel which was under gas attack. He was 43 years old when he died. He had former army service before 1914 and was a mine foreman when war broke out. His name was Harry Russelbury Wenlock and he was born in Wheaton Aston, Staffordshire then moved to Heath Town, Wolverhampton.

  8. Mrs Hazel Lord

    Every year, myself and seven colleagues from Ossett Academy, West Yorkshire, take 60 Yr9 students(13/14 year olds) on ‘The Battlefields Trip’. We take them to No-mans Land, to Thiepval Memorial, to Tynecot Cemetery to Cloth Hall in the town of Ypres and to see the Lochnagar crater, finishing off the week, honouring the dead with the last Post at Menin Gate.
    Every year the shear size of the crater still takes my breath away. I do a speach about how this giant crater was created. This year I will be telling them about Sapper William Hackett of 254 Tunnelling Company and his brave team, I will describe the conditions that these men worked in, to our students, so they know how these courageous men lived and died. We have made this trip for the last 8 years, I see ex-students who still talk about their amazing experience and how it literally changed their lives!
    We go again this July, taking another 60 unsuspecting 13/14 year olds, who will come back to England far humbler than they were before our visit.

  9. Very interesting site and an excellant memorial to the tunnelers. i have been researching my grandfathers ww1 war recirds and he is listed as being attached to tunnelling company 258. I am very keen to find out more about this company and would appreciate any information about the area this company carried out their mining.

    • Have you received the information you need? The Durand group are currently active underground at Loos where 258 Coy served at the end of 1916 in the Hill 70 Area. W have diaries, maps and pnas if you need inforamtion you have not got already

  10. What a splendid web-site! The most easily approachable, factual and concise description of the “Underground War”.
    Everyone knows stories of the chaps going “over the top” – very few ever give a thought to those who went underneath.
    Very best luck in all your endeavours!
    Bill Ruston

  11. An excellent web-site and very informative. My grandfather was a tin miner from Cornwall and joined the 251st tunnelers from the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry on the 9th October 1915. We know he came back to hospital in England in April 1916 and on his return to the front was transferred to the 185th tunneling company who by that time had moved towards Vimy and in particular Neuville St Vaast.

    I am conducting some research into how many Cornish Miners joined the tunneling companies, so if anyone has any pictures or information they could let me have I would be very grateful. We will be in Northern France at the end of this month and plan to visit the memorial as well as the Wellington museum and the archeological dig at La Boiselle.

    • Hello Ken – Iv’e just read your posted comment. Perhaps the detail in my comment today will be of use to you? Best regards from a Cornishman living in Scotland! Glyn Rolling

      • Hello Glyn,

        I am sorry for taking so long to get back to you, but somehow I missed this one and have only just picked it up. Thank you very much for the information it all helps to build what is a fascinating insight into what happened during the Great War.

        Kind Regards

        Ken

  12. Margaret Taylor

    My grandfather Joseph Thomas Reynolds was a Cornishman and in 251st Coy R.E but not a miner but a Miller from Carne, Manaccan. Cornwall. I am sorry to disappoint you but just discovered this site and think it brilliant too!

    • Hi Margaret,
      Thank you for that and I have picked up your grandfather as a member of the 251st. Like mine, he actually joined the DCLI 10th battalion on the 5th June 1915 and was transferred along with 220 others to the 251st company on the 29th Sept 1915, sailing to France on the 9th October 1915. He did become a tunneler on his 6 shillings a day until 17th December when he relinquished that right as many did. He was actually discharged on the 24th January 1919 still with the 251st. Sorry if you already knew this, but if not hope you find it interesting.

      Ken

  13. My Great grandfather, John Booth, served in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (No. 156) in France and Belgium. and was drafted to the Royal Engineers (Sapper 86466) in the May of 1915. In the October of that year was gassed. He was then sent to Scotland and then the South of England where he remained for two years. Rejoining the 171st tunnelling Co he was killed six weeks after his return on the 6th of November 1917, aged 47. He is buried at Vlamertinghe Military Cemetary, Belgium.

    • Hello Peter,
      I came across your remembrance of your great-grandfather whilst trying to find some info regarding a tunnelling officer. I am currently putting the final touches / entries /edits to a work I have been compiling for the past eleven years to be published in time for the 100th Anniversary of the Great War, 2014.
      I should like to include John Booth in the section I have written re. Vlamertinghe New Military Cemetery, and, should you agree, would appreciate answers to as much of the following as you are able to supply :
      His parents address.
      His mother’s maiden name
      John’s date of birth
      John’s place of education.
      John’s employ prior to enlistment.
      Did John serve in South Africa (his age and service no. indicate a pre-war Regular)
      Date John went to France (if 1st Loyal North Lancs, probably Aug. 1914)
      The names of his children.

      In appreciation of your assistance I will thank you in the book’s acknowledgements.
      Best Wishes,

      Paul Chapman.
      In Memory & In Mourning,
      For The Fallen,
      Lest We Forget.

  14. Christine Irvine

    Are there any photographs of the 170th Tunnelling Company dating from 1915 or 1916?

  15. My grandfather William F, paddock Joined the Welsh Fusiliers at the outbreak of the first world war but was transferred to the 173rd tunneling company I think because he was a miner. He served the duration of the war and was awarded the military medal and bar unfortunately I have no details of what he did to earn these medals as he refused to talk about them, saying only that the men who should have got them were the ones who didn’t come home. He died in his seventies a well loved and respected man.

  16. Hi folks,
    A great article. Thanks,
    Iain, Any idea when your book (on 177 Company) will be published? What will it be titled?

    Dave

    • Iain’s study of 177TC men, “Subterrenean Sappers. A History of 177 Tunnelling Company 1915 to 1919″ is currently with publishers. There is no publish date as yet.

  17. My great uncle Richard John Rolling was born in Falmouth 24 Feb 1899. A surface Tin Miner in Redruth, he joined the DCLI 10th Service Battalion (Cornwall Pioneers) on 14 April 1915. On 19 September 1915 he joined the newly formed 251st Tunnelling Company 10th Division (Pte. 132215) and qualified as a tunneller’s mate on 30th of that month. In November 1915 he was awarded promotion to Lance Corporal (aged 16!) but lost his rank in February 1916 for allowing the men to loiter in the trenches! Whilst serving in the Cuinchy-Cambrin area with the Tunnelling Company he was killed by enemy action on 23 March 1916. The war diary does not mention him specifically but notes that the Germans had exploded two mines on that day; one causing a twenty foot collapse in one of the 251st tunnels. My father is named after Richard (but he is known as John Rolling) and I intend to take my dad to Cuinchy War Cemetery for his eightieth birthday this year.

    • Hello all
      ref: Cornish Tunnellers
      I am a BBC researcher working on the BBC World War One at Home Project in Cornwall. We would love to hear from any descendants of WW1 tunnellers. Thank you in anticipation of any feedback. Regards, Hannah Stacey, BBC Radio Cornwall (01872 475263).

  18. travis saunders

    Is there any record of a sapper with the surname Stanway.

    • Yes Travis, a quick search of the Medal Rolls confirms there were 12 sappers with the surname Stanway. Do you have any further information to help narrow down the search?

  19. My grandfather’s brother was in the 178th Tunnelling Company; he was previously in the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry. His name was Ernest Jacob. He was killed on The Somme in 1916. I do have a photo which I think is the 178th Company.

    • Dear Paul – we have 178TC war diary in our collection. Please email us if you would like us to send you a copy.

      • Hi, My great Grandfather (John Simkin) was in the 178th and died on the 29th August 1915. I would be grateful to get hold on any info about his time in the Somme.

        • I have sent you war diary and trench map extracts Louise – I hope they are of use.
          Best wishes,
          Jeremy Banning (Tunnellers Memorial admin)

      • I would really appreciate a copy – sorry haven’t responded earlier.
        Many thanks
        Paul

    • My grandfather Oliver Frank Field was also with the 178th Tunnelling Company and as I have mentioned above won the Military Medal in 1916. Is there any way I might see that photograph please. Many thanks.

  20. lesley dillon

    My grandfather Private William Larmen was in the Durham light infantry and i have just been told he dug tunnels under the german lines,he used to dig the tunnels for the underground in london,does anyone remember him or have any photos,may thanks

  21. Chris Donnelly

    My Great Grandfather William Gorge Woodgate was a sapper in the 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company. He travelled to the Western Front in 1916 from Australia, and returned in 1919. His unit operated at Hill 70 in the Arras area.
    I would like to thank those that organised the Tunnellers Memorial in France. It was long overdue. I have been to my Great Grandfather’s units War Cemetery in Hersin France and would very much like to visit the new Memorial.

    • Robin Sanderson

      Hello Chris,
      Good to see your post. I am nearing the end of my book ~after 10 years!~ on the 3rd Australian Tunneling Company in which your great grandfather Sapper William Woodgate served. My book will pay tribute and tell the stories of scores of of the brave men like your great grandfather in this Tunnelling unit (which my grandfather commanded after the death of Major ‘Jack’ Coulter . He was Major Alexander Sanderson DSO MC bar OC 3ATC between 1916 and 1919). o should be competed by end 1914.

  22. My great grandfather Josiah William Jewess joined up in 1915 and was a tunneller somewhere in france.He was “blown up” sometime after and invalided back home where he was medically discharged and given the SWB badge.
    This is all the information we have on him apart from his medal record.
    Can anyone shed more light on him or point me in the direction of somewhere that can?

    • I will send you all the information I have Paul. You are lucky in that his service record still survives. He was with 177 and then 184 Tunnelling Company RE.
      With thanks,
      Jeremy Banning (on behalf of the Tunnellers Memorial team)

  23. Absolutely fantastic,I can’t thank you enough,this will fill a big gap in our family history.

  24. My grandfather was in the 179th Tunnel CorpHis name was Arthur Finney .D.C.M. 79285 . Are there any photos or history of this company.

  25. John Wilkinson

    Very interesting! My uncle, Maurice Wilkinson MC, was in 177 Tunnelling Company from 1915 until he was killed on 31st July 1917 by a shell when they were on the way to the front line. In a letter written to his sister-in-law on 26th June 1917 he said that his Commanding Officer had been killed and he was in temporary command. It was very lively and they were ‘getting it hot’. I understand that 177 Company was stationed at Railway Wood just outside Ypres. I am going on a battlefield tour on the 29th May staying in Ypres for four days. We will visit his grave and Railway Wood and, hopefully, the 177 Company memorial at Railway Wood Cemetery. I would be really grateful for any further information about 177 Company and my Uncle’s role in it. Suggestions as to areas to visit would be most welcome. Is it possible to get hold of an advance copy of the book about 177 Company which is mentioned in the responses? Many thanks, John Wilkinson

  26. Garry Maguire

    My Great grandfather, Serjeant Robert Docherty was with the 258th TC , service number 79729.

    He had been with the Cameron Highlanders joining up in Bridgend where he was a miner. He had a different service number then- 10700 but i can find no records of that service beyond the 14-15 star medal

    He was awarded the Military Medal and died of wounds on 22/10/16 of the effects of gas on his lungs following, the family oral history goes, rescuing several men- all of whom subsequently died. We can’t find detail of this however.

    Can you help find records of the 258th please?

    Thank you

    Garry

  27. Steve Wakefield

    Great site! My grandfather Sapper 778 HG Webb, 2nd Wessex RE was involved in tunneling and told me stories as a young boy. I recall him talking of hearing the Jerries in tunnels next door, and the volatile unstable nature of ammanol as it sweated?Until my early middle age some of his stories were put down to fanciful hyperbole, and some dementia, (he was affected mentally by his service) and it was only with recent accounts such as yours that the truth and gravity of the tunnelers work has been made clear to us all. Harry sadly died before his time in the sixties, and before a grown up me could ask him so many more questions. His records were amongst the “burnt” ones destroyed in the blitz, so I cannot follow his service entirely, but relatives have confirmed him also serving in the Dardenelles, after spending time in a “soldiers home” near Christchurch, Hants in 1916 (he joined up August 1914).His record shows him to be a malaria case? I would be really pleased if he was listed somewhere to record his service properly, and also would like any further information I can find out about him, such as his Company/Unit, movements, etc. I now have a modest home in France, and carry his war bible with me (and Harry too) every time I visit.

  28. Anthony Parsons

    As with many of the messages above I am researching my grandfather Sapper Edward Charles Parsons, Army Number 104983, a Cornish tin miner, then South African goldminer who enlisted on 12th August 1915, his 4oth birthday in London. Might he have been in the 178th Company noted above? He served in France from 19th August 1915 until 11th December 1916, then returned to England and was discharge as medically unfit on 9th March 1917 and subsequently died on 4th October 1918.
    Any information or advice as to where I might research further, would be gratefully recieved.
    Regards
    Anthony Parsons

  29. John A Smith

    Seeking any info on William Bassett acting 2nd corporal 175th Tunnelling Coy. Died 14/8/1916. Enlisted 10/6/1915.

    • Dear John – we hope the email and disc of information sent back in August proved of use.
      Best wishes,
      Admin Team

    • My Great Grandfather served at the same time as yours, have you considered visiting your local library and seeing if they have any archived local newspapers from that time? I found that the local newspaper produced a week after my Great Grandfathers death produced a small piece on him as well as featuring a photograph.

  30. My Great Grand Father, Henry (Harry) Ashbee SPR 94559 was in A company 179th Tunnelling Unit, He joined at the start of the War with a group of pals who were working for Sir John Norton-Griffiths on the Sewers in Manchester. Henry was a master bricklayer by trade and not a clay kicker, was in his late forties and left behind a family of eight. Sadly I have very little information on his War service except that he was very badly wounded at Passchendaele in October 1917. He survived but lost his right arm and had severe shrapnel wounds to his back.

  31. Hello Very informative site . Thank you

    My Wife is tracking her Grandfather,James Windsor Lewis a tricky job as her Father was orphaned by both parents in the early twenties as was brought up by distant family. Recently we have found out that he was a Blackwood Monmouthshire ” pit head sinker” and was 44 years old in 1914 yet still served in France and was gassed.
    Given that he was out of normal recruitment age I wonder if he was a tunneller? Would he feature on any of your records ? any pointers would be gratefully received

    Thank You

    David Bevan

    • Dear David,
      We hope our 20 September email was of some use in helping with this family mystery.
      Best wishes,
      Tunnellers Memorial Admin

  32. Been researching my grandfather Henry James Robb Allardyce. Found evidence that he joined Gordon Highlanders January 1915 and was discharged after 60 days as service no longer needed. We had assumed he was a tunneller as he had been miner but somehow this does not seem true. Family legend states he had “outbursts” due to shrapnel wounds and he eventually left home. I have traced him to Army service and then found his death certificare but nothing in between. This early discharge from the army seems odd. Any help would be appreciated.

    • Dear Anne,
      We have just sent you an email with our thoughts on your grandfather’s wartime service.
      Best wishes,
      Admin Team

  33. Were tunnellers attached to regiments. My grandfather had a short service in Gordon Highlanders from January 1915 to March 1915 then discharged as services no longer required. As he was a miner we had assumed he was a tunneller but this site leads me to discount this. Any help would be appreciated

  34. My great grandfather John James Edward Davis was in 175th tunnelling corp. He was a A/2nd/Corporal, number 102003, he died on the 30th Jan 1917 Flanders France and is buried at Varnennes Military Cemetery, Somme, France. My Mum has several letters he wrote back home including one from the nurse who looked after him before he died. Apparently he joined up while coming home drunk from the pub!!
    I would like to find out any information there might be on his service, like how he became a corporal. Any information would greatly be appreciated.
    Many Thanks

    • Dear Claire – we hope that the disc of 175TC’s war diary has reached you and proves interesting reading.
      Best wishes,
      Tunnellers Memorial Admin Team

  35. I am currently working on a database of all the R.E. Tunnellers who lost their lives in the Great War, I am trying to build a small pen picture of as many as possible. Very impressed with the content on this site. If I can be of any help, let me know.
    All the best,

    Andy

    • I wonder if someone could help me please. Higher up there is a photo of the 175 Tunnel Regiment and my Great Uncle Thomas Fulham Wales was in that regiment.

      He joined up at 34 and because he was a miner, they transferred him to the 175 tunnelling regiment in the Royal Engineers. It also looks like he was discharged a year later being considered not fit to fight, so presume he got injured. He got medals sent to him in 1920, so it appears he survived the War, but as there is no Census after 1911, I cannot find out what happened to him after that.

      Details I know are as follows :

      Thomas Fulham Wales
      Born 1881 Northumberland
      Worked as Miner and Stone Mason prior to enlisting
      Enlisted 02/06/1915 in London
      Army Number 102237
      Transferred to 175 Tunneling Regiment Royal Engineers on 19/07/1915 due to his mining skills

      Discharged 15/12/1916
      Awarded Victory, British and Star Medal

      If anyone could supply me with some information on him, or identify him on the photo, why he was discharged, where he fought / dug mines etcI would be really grateful. I am visiting the WW1 Battlefield’s next year and would love to know more about him.

      Many thanks

  36. Robin Sanderson

    Excellent webpage but…..

    ‘Sapper ready for descent’ in the Mine Rescue ?Proto station is in fact Sapper 1057 Eugene Kelly ( KIA 11/4/1918) on duty with 3rd Australian Tunnelling Companyin the Hulluch Tunnel near Loos-en-Gohelle ( See AWM photo E01683)
    Why not amend your caption to this photo to acknowledge this Australian sapper who made the supreme sacrifice?

  37. Hello,

    I wonder if someone could help me please ?

    I have being doing some research and found that my Great Uncle fought in the First World War and mainly due to his distinctive name, found a load of documents about him. It looks like he joined up at 34 and because he was a miner, they transferred him to the 175 tunnelling regiment in the Royal Engineers. He was discharged a year later being considered not fit to fight, so presume he got injured. He got medals sent to him in 1920, so presume he survived the War, but as there is no Census after 1911, I cannot find out what happened to him after that. There is a “Will Notice” which mentions in hand writing, what looks like “to Mam “ and is dated 16/04/1920.

    Details :
    Thomas Fulham Wales
    Born 1881 Northumberland
    Occupation prior to enlisting :Miner & Stone mason
    Enlisted 02/06/1915
    Army Number 102237
    Sapper in Royal Engineers
    Transferred to 175 Tunneling Regiment 19/07/1915 due to his work as a miner.
    Discharged 15/12/1916 – “Discharged – no longer physically fit for War Service, Para 392 XVI King’s regulations2
    Awarded Victory, British and Star Medal

    Can anyone please advise if they have any other information on Thomas Fulham Wales, where he may have dug tunnels, fought etc, injureies and if he did survive the War. I am visiting the WW1 Battlefields and would really like to know any relevant information.

    Any help or guidance would really be appreciated.

    Thanks

    Brad

  38. andrew manyweathers

    looking for any information on 175 tunneling company april 15 to sept 15
    my uncle died of his wounds joesph manyweathers in the september and researching any photo or diaries wich i can find out more info on him
    thanks every body
    andy

    • Andy – we have sent you an email dated 11 December with lots of information. Please let us know if you would like the war diary.

  39. Lorraine Squires

    My grandfather James Box was a tunneler. I don’t know what regiment he was with. He lived in Stoke-on-Trent (born 1895) until after WW1, then moved to Yorkshire. He died in 1931 as the result of a mine shaft collapse at Grimethorpe. My mother came to Canada in 1957. Any info you have would be greatly appreciated. If he’s in one of the photos, I would be able to lay eyes on him for the first time.

    • Dear Lorraine, We have just sent you an email with our thoughts on your grandfather’s wartime service. Best wishes, Admin Team

  40. I wonder if anyone has any information?My Father Talbot Charles John Wheeler was mustered as a Tunnellers Mate on 14/10/1915 in the 178 company of the Royal Engineers Army No.148455[he was formerly a miner]and remustered as a Tunneller the next day!On 3/8/1916 he joined the 258th comp. of the R.E.He survived the war and seems to have been demobilised on 21/01/1919. In 1921 he rejoined the Army as a military policeman but that’s another story!
    Any information about my father or the 2 companies he was in would be very welcome.

    • Dear Colin,
      We have sent you an email with the offer of these war diaries. Look forward to hearing from you.
      Best wishes,
      Tunnellers Memorial Admin Team

      • I, too, have found a great uncle, Fred Seddon regimental number 156416, who transferred to the 258th Tunnelling Regiment from the Loyal North Lancs Regiment on 9 July 1916 and was remustered as a tunneller, at the rank of corporal, on 1 January 1917. He returned to England on 30 March 1918, apparently due to ill health. It does not seem that he returned to the front after that. He was awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal in 1921, but no other more personal decorations (so far as I am aware).
        Would war diaries be likely to hold sufficiently detailed information so that I may learn more about my great uncle’s service? He was a clerk on the local co-op store in Leigh, Lancashire, before enlisting in November 1914 so does not seem the most likely material for a tunneller. Where might I find more information? Many thanks for any help.

        • Dear Chris,
          We have sent you an email with details of 258TC’s work and an offer of the Company war diary.
          Best wishes,
          Tunnellers Memorial Admin Team

      • Have received the Diaries they make amazing reading and I actually found my fathers name mentioned when he was with 178 Com. Many many Thanks
        Best Wishes
        Colin

  41. anthony grainger

    looking for info on my great grandfather
    sapper thomas roberts 136218
    kia 17/4/16
    173 tunn co
    aged 41 on enlistment
    first married man from his village to be killed
    no known grave, believed to have been killed by an underground explosion
    many thanks
    tony

    • Dear Tony,
      We have sent you an email with details of 173TC’s work and the 17 April 1916 explosion at the Double Crassier at Loos.
      Best wishes,
      Tunnellers Memorial Admin Team

  42. Alistair Paterson

    This is a really informative website – thank you.

    My great-uncle, Wallace Campbell Paterson, was born in Glasgow in 1893. Following school he became a mining surveyor in the Fife Collieries. He joined the Territorial Forces in September 1914 before joining the Royal Engineers in January 1915, where he was able to use his mining experience in 173 Company as a tunneller. Wallace joined the France theatre of war in May 1915 and was promoted to Second Lieutenant in December 1915. He was killed on 17 February 1916, aged 23, and is buried in Noeux-Les-Mines cemetery. The company war diary for that day just says “Enemy mine exploded against Hant’s Crater. One R.E. officer and six sappers killed”. His service number was 76387.

    I would love to find out more about what 173 company was doing at the time and any more information on my great uncle, if anyone can help.

    • Dear Alistair,
      Your great-uncle’s service record is held at the National Archives in Kew under reference WO339/51690.
      We have sent you an email with an offer of 173TC war diary. Look forward to hearing back from you.
      Regards,
      Tunnellers Memorial Admin Team

  43. Dear Admin team,
    Further to the above query from Chris Nicholls on Dec 30th, I am also trying to find out more information about Fred Seddon (Royal Engineers regimental number 156416, 258th Tunnelling Company), who was my grandfather.

    I would be very grateful if you could also send me a copy of the email with details of 258TC’s work and an offer of the Company war diary.

    Best wishes, John Seddon.

    • Dear John,
      We have sent you an email with an offer to send 258TC’s war diary and the surviving service record of Fred Seddon.
      Please let us know if you are keen to receive this.
      Best wishes,
      Tunnellers Memorial Admin Team

  44. Great site and very helpful to me at the moment as I am researching for a radio drama I’m currently developing. My protagonist is an ex-member of a Tunnellers Rescue Team, and now a new member of a Mine Rescue Team in Co. Durham in 1919. Can’t say anymore than that at the moment.

  45. Janey Ricketts

    My great grandfather Moses Williams, Sapper 120979, enlisted in Tredegar, south wales, and was in the 253rd Tunnelling Company. Killed in action 28th March, 1918 France & Flanders., aged just 35. Does anyone have info/records pertaining to the 253rd Company or Moses Williams?

    • Dear Janey,
      We have sent you an email with details of 253TC’s work and an offer of the Company war diary. Please let us know if you are keen to receive this.
      Best wishes,
      Tunnellers Memorial Admin Team

      • Janey Ricketts

        Thanks, that would be brilliant. Have emailed you. Fantastic that there is a site such as this to help. :)

  46. An utterly brilliant site and thank you for the Information you have shared. I have a very brief copy of the 175th Tunneling Companys war dairy for March 1916 (when my great Grandfather died) but I was looking for any more information anyone might have about the 175th in the month before…or any pictures of the Company or anything related to their movements.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated

    • Dear Mark – We hope that the information sent by Jeremy Banning has been of use.
      Best wishes,
      Tunnellers Memorial Admin

    • Alan Tomlinson

      Hi, my great uncle was a member of the 175th , awarded the DCM for action in summer 1915 ( Hooge ) died 1916. Jeremy Banning was excellent with info. There are war diaries . Alan.

  47. I am trying to find out more about my maternal grandmother’s brother, Archibald Maitland DALGLEISH who signed up in Western Australia in 1916 and was with the 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company in France. He was I believe gassed in March 1917, and returned to England in April 1917 with Pleurisy. He was discharged and returned to Australia in September 1917 as a result of the Pleurisy. I would like to know where the 3rd were in early 1917.

  48. Seeking any information on the 174th Tunneling Company. My Great Grandfather Sgt Jack Sheldon, survived the campaign, being awarded the DCM for conspicuous gallantry, but not sure for what action, or where.

    • Dear Nick,
      We have sent you an email with details of 174TC’s work and an offer of the Company war diary. Please let us know if you are keen to receive this.
      Best wishes,
      Tunnellers Memorial Admin Team

  49. Pingback: THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE | Pointe-Claire Public Library

  50. I know that my grandmother’s first husband was an Sapper and killed in the first world war so thankyou for the opportunity to learn a bit more about the courage and role of some of the men like him in the great war..

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