On the morning of 22 June 1916, Sapper William Hackett and four other miners of 254 Tunnelling Company were driving a tunnel towards the enemy lines below the cratered surface of the Givenchy sector of northern France. At about one-quarter of the way towards the German trenches at a depth of about 35 feet, the timbered gallery 4’3” high by 2’6” wide was still in the early stages of development; it was served by a single shaft – the Shaftesbury Shaft. At 2.50am the explosion of a heavy German mine (the Red Dragon) blew in 25 feet of the tunnel, cutting the five men off from the shaft and safety. On the surface, a rescue party was immediately organised. After two days of digging an escape hole was formed through the fallen earth and broken timbers, and the tunnellers contacted. William Hackett helped three men to safety. However, with sanctuary beckoning, and although himself apparently unhurt, he refused to leave until the last man, seriously injured 22 year-old Thomas Collins of the Swansea Pals (14th Battalion, the Welsh Regiment), was rescued. His words were said to be, “I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first”. The rescuers worked on, but were frequently immobilized by German shelling and mortaring of the shaft-head. Conditions above and below ground became more treacherous by the minute. Eventually the gallery collapsed again, entombing the two men. Both still lie beneath the fields of Givenchy today. Figure 1, to the right, shows an overlay of a contemporary aerial photograph and trench map, showing the Givenchy crater field formed by intensive underground warfare, the British and German trenches, the location of the Shaftesbury Shaft that served the tunnel in which William Hackett and his colleagues were working, the German mine crater (Red Dragon) that caused their gallery to fail, and the site of the memorial.
For his act of selfless valour William Hackett was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross – the only such decoration ever to be bestowed upon a Tunneller. He is remembered in perpetuity on Panel 1 of the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing near Armentières whilst Thomas Collins’ name appears on the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme. Why two men who died together and still lie together are not commemorated in the same place is unknown.
With William Hackett’s courage exemplifying the Tunnellers’ work, the memorial stands in celebration not only of him, but all his military mining comrades from around the world, men whose critical but hidden role has been long overlooked. Although heroes of obscurity, and with their names featuring only marginally on the great lists of dead, wounded and missing, their contribution to the surface war was vital. Few have spoken or written of their ways in the last nine decades, no monuments had been erected to their memory, and yet fewer poets have immortalised their hidden and selfless endeavours in the most secret, personal and savage battlefield of the war – the battlefield beneath No Man’s Land. Figure 2 shows a segment of an original tunnelling plan showing part of the British mine workings at Givenchy, with the Shaftesbury Shaft (arrowed), the destroyed gallery (hatched) in which William Hackett and Thomas Collins died, and the Red Dragon crater. After the tragedy the Shaftesbury workings were abandoned.
William Hackett, one of two sons of John and Harriet Hackett, was born on 11th June 1873 in Patriot Street, Sneinton near Nottingham. Father John was a travelling brewer, who “did considerable business among country-side inns of the old-fashioned type” [Mexborough and Swinton Times]. William did not go to school and was to remain illiterate throughout his life. Leaving his first job in a factory in Nottingham, at the age of eighteen he applied for mining work at Denaby Main, a large local colliery founded in 1863.
On 16th April 1900 at Conisbrough Parish Church, he married Alice Tooby, formerly of Morley near Leeds. The couple moved into 22, Cusworth Street, Denaby, one of many small terraced houses owned by the colliery. In 1901 William is listed as a ‘Coal Miner’s Filler’, a job that entailed loading ‘tubs’ (mine trucks) with mineral. Some years later, and having found better-paid work at Manvers Main Colliery, the Hacketts, now a family, had left Denaby for Mexborough near Doncaster, South Yorkshire. William and Alice, their son Arthur and daughter Mary, as well as mother and father-in-law Thomas & Sarah Tooby, were settled in a new home at 49, Crossgate. William’s job was now that of ‘Dataller’, making and repairing roads and railways underground.
Upon the declaration of war in August 1914 William Hackett began the quest to ‘do his bit’. Three times he tried and failed to enlist in the York and Lancaster Regiment – at the age of 41 he was considered too old for the infantry. The desperate need for skilled miners on the Western Front, however, saw notices requesting volunteer tunnellers being posted in collieries, mineral mines and quarries across the land. On 25th October 1915, despite having been being diagnosed with a heart condition by the army medicals, Hackett was accepted by the Royal Engineers, and after a fortnight’s training at Chatham followed by a few days leave, he was sent to France to join 172 Tunnelling Company. Within a month he was transferred to 254 Tunnelling Company, then working on the Western Front at Givenchy lès la Bassée in northern France.
In January 1916 news of Arthur arrived by letter. At the age of fourteen, he had already left school and begun work – underground at Manvers Main Colliery. After only four weeks he had been involved in an accident with runaway mine trucks. The boy was seriously injured, his right leg having to be amputated below the knee. Being illiterate, William Hackett asked a friend, Sapper I R Evans, to write home for him:
2nd February, 1916
It is very hard to have his leg off but God knows best…its very hard for me to be in this foreign land and have a lad placed in hospital…I cannot help him but I know you will do all you can.
4th March, 1916
We shall have to look on the bright side of things and pray for the best you know because all our lives are full of troubles and I wish to God they was all over with and the war is only just starting since I have been out here but the young fellow that writes for me says it is only just the same as it was last year but dear Wife there is going to be some bloodshed before so very long they don’t intend it going on so very much longer and they all seem to think so too and I don’t care how soon because we are all fed up. I hope Mrs Hackett that the letters I write for your husband is alright, because he never tells me anything to put in. I know it is not like writing one himself and I know it must be very hard lines that he can’t write…
24th April, 1916
I hope and trust to God that I will be able to come home safe and sound to be along with you all one day. I hope they will soon shift us from here, for it is not fit for us to be in as we get to dodge the bullets on every side of us coming in at night. I hope you have enjoyed yourself this Easter for we are not able to go out here but if I lives to pull through I will have a holiday to make up for all this…
[Letter extracts courtesy of the Royal Engineers Museum, Chatham]
At the time the 24 April letter was written 254 Tunnelling Company were beginning to sink the Shaftesbury Shaft in preparation to drive the new gallery beneath No Man’s Land. William Hackett’s work under No Man’s Land at Givenchy was too critical for leave to be granted. He and his son would never see each other again. After the tragedy of 22 June Captain G M Edwardes, William Hackett’s section commander, wrote to the family.
11th July, 1916
I find it very difficult to express to you adequately the admiration I and all the officers had for the heroic manner in which your husband met his death. Sad as his loss may be to his own people, yet his fearless conduct and wonderful selfsacrifice must always be a source of pride and comfort to you all. Your husband deliberately sacrificed his own life to save his comrades, and even when three or four were saved he refused to save himself because the remaining man was too injured to help himself. He has been recommended for the V.C., that simple medal which represents all that is brave and noble. In token of our esteem, the officers and men are sending you a small gift in the near future, which we trust will be acceptable.
After Hackett’s death Evans wrote to his widow Alice, pictured above with children Arthur (14) and Mary (12). Arthur, a coal miner, had lost a leg in a pit accident a month before his father’s death.
146205 Sapper I R Evans
2 Section, 254 Tunnelling Company RE
Dear Mrs Hackett,
I am most sorry to have to write to you under such circumstances that is to inform you that your Husband Sapper Hackett was Killed in Action on 22nd June but I can tell you that that he died a heroes death as brave as any man as died in this war which I hope before long you will hear more about it. And I can tell you your Husbands death is sadly felt as he was respected by all the officers and men of the 254 Company and as for myself I miss him so much as if he was my own Father as you know I used to write his letters for him. And all the boys of his section wish me to send you their best wishes and hope that you and the children will have the best of health and good luck and hope you will try and bear the sad news and they asked me to tell you that you can be proud of the way your husband died as he was a hero if ever there was one. I only wish I could tell it the way it happen but as you know we are not allowed to but if I am spared to come over this lot I will come and see you and let you know all about it. Well Mrs Hackett I must draw to a close by wishing you and the children the best of health and good luck.
I beg to remain
I R Evans
A respectful period having elapsed, the Mexborough and Swinton Times sent a reporter to interview the family.
Mrs Hackett was asked by the “Times” representative what were her feelings upon learning that her husband had risen to such a height of heroism. “Well”, she said, “I knew he was no coward. I could never understand the doctors rejecting him on account of his heart. There wasn’t much wrong with that, was there? He was always after joining the Army, and I know he tried hard to get into the York and Lancaster Regiment. Only a few weeks before he enlisted, he got cut across the back by a fall of roof in the Manvers Main mine, and had a very narrow escape from death, so the deputy afterwards told me. The deputy wanted him to be taken home at once, but he refused saying he would work the shift out because his missus would be upset if she thought he had been hurt so badly that he had to give up work before the shift was up. That’s the sort of man he was. I can just imagine what he would think when he was down in the mine where he met his death. He would think when he heard that another poor fellow was fastened up in there: “What would my feelings be if I was lying helpless and nobody would stay with me. I must go to him, even if we both go under”.
[Mexborough and Swinton Times, 2 December 1916]
Upon receiving news of William Hackett’s noble act, Royal Engineers stationed all over the world raised funds for the family.
49, Cross Gate
To the editor of The Sapper [RE Magazine]
Dear Sir I received your letter and the money this morning, and I don’t know how to thank my kind friends that God has raised up for me in my trouble. He has taken with one hand and given with the other. I am very grateful, both to Him and to all friends. Will you kindly let them know how I appreciate their goodness to me and my children? I am glad to be able to tell you that I have not had to use the £67 that my husband’s comrades sent me, but I banked it to use for my children’s education, so that of anything should happen to me they would be able to keep themselves. They are gong to the secondary school here, and my boy is also learning shorthand to fit him for an office. I put him to it as soon as he came out of hospital, and his dad was so pleased to know that he would not have to go to the pit again. But he knew I should do my best for my chicks, and I trust they will grow up a credit to their brave father. They unite with me in forwarding our heartfelt thanks to Sapper Phillips and Lance-Corpl. Woolgar and all those interested in my welfare, and I also have to thank you very much for the trouble you have taken on my behalf, and I sign myself.
Yours ever gratefully,
William Hackett, said the Mexborough and Swinton Times, was “ a quiet unassuming man, typical of the everyday steady-going miner, sparing of speech and philosophic of soul. Nevertheless, he was well-known and well-liked amongst the mining fraternity of the Mexboro’ district, and particularly at Denaby Main, where he was employed for nearly a quarter of a century. From a habit, peculiar to the Nottingham district, of addressing boys as “youth”, he acquired the pseudonym “Youthey”, and it stuck to him whilever he remained in the district. He will be more particularly remembered among the men and boys of Denaby Main as “Youthey V.C.” than as “Sapper Hackett V.C.”