Book Review: Directing the Tunnellers War

Review by Andy Cockeram - Chairman BMMHS

Directing the Tunnellers War

The Tunnelling Memoirs of Capt. HR Dixon MC, RE

 Edited by Philip Robinson and Nigel Cave

Published by Pen and Sword 205 pages Hardback.

This unusual and interesting book is largely based upon the memoirs of Captain HR Dixon of his time as a tunnelling officer in the Great War, which he drafted in the 1930s and remained in archives until 2020.  Editors Philip Robinson and Nigel Cave have kept true to his original manuscript, yet have enhanced it to include explanatory notes, maps and diagrams to give greater clarity and explanation of the somewhat clandestine war underground on the Western Front.

For many people, the underground war in World War One is something of a mystery.  However the scale of the tunnelling companies, the extent of the tunnels burrowed under enemy lines and the enormity of the explosions they created are truly amazing.  At its peak some 35,000 men (of which 11,000 were tunnellers), were involved with the tunnelling activities, and by 1917 well over 100 miles of tunnels and its spider’s web of small tunnels had been dug by the BEF on the western front in addition to those by the French engineers.  The companies were largely formed from the mining communities of Great Britain, not just coal mines but tins and copper too but also those from the Dominions, particularly Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  Thousands of Chinese labourers also recruited by the BEF with

These hardy souls, used to working in the cramped, often airless and highly dangerous conditions many feet below the battlefield above them, were used in three specific roles.   Offensively, to burrow under German lines to plant tons of explosives beneath enemy trenches, often as prelude to an allied attack above ground, such as at Messines.  Much of the work had to be carried out by hand in complete silence and in socked feet, for fear of being heard by enemy listening devices.  Secondly, they worked defensively to prevent and destroy the enemy’s own aggressive tunnelling activity, often resulting in hand to hand fighting, or exploding munitions below the German’s own tunnels.  And finally, they operated as traditional Royal Engineers, working alongside the above ground infantry units preparing the huge network of trenches and defensive fortifications including railway lines, bridges and road ways.  With the German Spring Offensive of 1918 and the attempted breakthrough to the Channel coast as the allied armies were pushed back, the Royal Engineers along with the tunnelling companies were tasked with preparing hundreds of bridges, railway lines and roadways  in north west France for demolition in the event of a German breakthrough to the Channel.  As events transpired, the Offensive stalled and this drastic action was not required.

While this book is the memoir of Captain Dixon who, after a period with the tunnelling companies was co-opted to the staff at GHQ, mainly planning, training and organising logistics for the Tunnelling Companies in support of the greater strategic plans of GHQ. The book throws light on what the tunnellers were like, a breed apart who rarely saw daylight during working hours, and who ran the risks of tunnel collapse, flooding, poisonous gasses and of course enemy attack and counter-action.    Neither were the infantry above ground always welcoming to tunnellers as enemy artillery would specifically target the entrance to the tunnels, which were normally close to infantry trenches and positions, where any build-up of equipment or materials dug from the tunnels swiftly became visible to spotter balloons and planes.

As the war evolved so did enhancements to mining warfare strategy and practices develop.  Dixon describes how new techniques were used to counteract German attacks, the effect of enemy gas attacks as well as the effect of natural hazards such as flooding, differing types of earth and soil, and poison gases in the mines themselves.  And with the war speedily coming to an end towards the end of 1918, Dixon describes the hazards of a widespread and very destructive scorched earth policy by the retreating German armies, with many of their abandoned positions, wells, munitions stores, rail lines and bridges, and even civilian properties booby-trapped by ever more sophisticated and devious means.  Many allied troops including Royal Engineers and tunnellers died as a result of these unseen weapons right up to Armistice Day and beyond.

The book uses the language of that period nearly a century ago, and as an officer, Dixon devotes much of the narrative to his work as a senior staff officer at GHQ, and dealing with senior officers in the British Army.  Not wishing to understate the horrors of war, Dixon specifically and deliberately avoided giving any real description of what life was like for the tunnellers underground, feeling these were well documented to excess elsewhere. It does come across as somewhat impersonal at times with little mention made of casualties (on either side) or even the successes.  With that in mind one would be mistaken to suppose that he had a comfortable war going from meeting to meeting and from one well supplied mess dinner to another.   It was perhaps a sign of the times that ‘the stiff upper lip’ should prevail and any hardships played down and hardly mentioned.

The photos, maps and the diagrams both give good description of the extent of tunnelling on the Western Front as well as the technical side of how the tunnels and the explosive charges were formed and constructed. He also recounts, by means of numerous anecdotes, the personalities and work of the staff at GHQ, ranging from humble clerks and the misdemeanours of his batman to senior officers, not least the Royal Engineer hierarchy. The authors have included extensive bios with photographs of most of the personalities with whom he dealt.

As a conclusion, one should reflect on the fact that while the allied tunnelling effort was immense with mainly professional and seasoned miners used, that of the Germans was similar but with many of those working underground being men on ‘punishment duty’.  For all involved it was highly dangerous work with day to day risk of death or serious injury, through accident or by direct enemy action.   It is estimated something approaching 3000 to 4000 tunnellers on the allied side were killed.  The allies always certainly ‘won’ the tunnelling war and one can assume German casualties were substantially higher.

Overall, a fascinating and worthy book, providing a great insight into one of the lesser known parts of the Great War, and congratulations should be made to the editors for compiling such an informative and interesting book, and to Captain Dixon for having documented his service life for us all to read nearly 100 years later.

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