Meeting: Underground Warfare in WW1

Speaker: Simon Jones​

Wednesday 9th December 2020; 7:30 pm

Woodcote Village Hall, Reading Road, Woodcote, RG8 0QY

Due to COVID-19 this Meeting has now been re-scheduled as a BMMHS Virtual Talk

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Underground Warfare in WW1

Simon Jones’s graphic history of underground warfare during the Great War uses personal reminiscences to convey the danger and suspense of this unconventional form of conflict. He describes how the underground soldiers of the opposing armies engaged in a ruthless fight for supremacy, covers the tunnelling methods they employed, and shows the increasingly lethal tactics they developed during the war in which military mining reached its apotheosis.

While he concentrates on the struggle for supremacy by the British tunnelling companies on the Western Front, his wide-ranging study also tells the story of the little-known but fascinating subterranean battles fought in the French sectors.

Vivid personal testimony is combined with a lucid account of the technical challenges – and ever-present perils – of tunnelling in order to give an all-round insight into the extraordinary experience of this underground war.

TUNNEL CONSTRUCTION ON THE WESTERN FRONT (E (AUS) 1396) Australian tunnellers pumping water from dugouts, Hooge, Belgium. 18 September 1917. (Nearest unit 1st Austalian Tunnelling Company) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205223186
TUNNEL CONSTRUCTION ON THE WESTERN FRONT (E (AUS) 4621) The 2nd Australian Tunnelling Company at work underground. 14 November 1917 at Nieuport Bains, Belgium. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205223187

Tunneling and mining operations

The secret underground war of the Tunnellers was fought in warren-like galleries beneath the trenches of the Western Front and was terrifyingly portrayed in the novel Birdsong.

Tunneling and mining operations were used to attack enemy positions by digging underneath them and then destroying them with explosive mines. Much of the excavation work was done by special Royal Engineers units formed from Welsh and Durham miners. Sometimes miners would meet and fight German tunnellers underground as their tunnels intercepted enemy works.

THE BRITISH ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 49394) British graves with human bones on the surface in the Lochnagar mine crater at La Boisselle, 21 September 1917. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205283243
Mining beneath the walls of a besieged castle is an ancient form of warfare which was revived in the stalemate of trench warfare. The British enlisted civilian miners and specialist ‘clay-kickers’ and, by 1916, more than 20,000 Tunnellers faced an equal number of Germans underground.
 
That year, between them the opposing sides detonated some 1,500 underground charges. Galleries met deep below no man’s land, sometimes breaking into one another and resulting in hand-to-hand fighting.
 
Much of this desperate struggle served only to preserve a precarious equilibrium but huge charges, placed at great risk beneath the German positions, were blown at the opening of the Battle of the Somme and, more successfully, the Battle of Messines in June 1917 when 19 mines containing well over a million pounds of explosives launched the devastating attack.

Battle of the Somme

On 1 July 1916, a few minutes before the 34th Division attacked on the Somme, the British exploded two huge mines packed with explosives under the German lines at La Boisselle. The mines were dug at Y-Sap in Mash Valley and Lochnagar in Sausage Valley. Although many of the defenders were killed by the explosions, the delay in starting the advance meant that the men were unable to keep up with the artillery barrage that was supposed to take them through to the German trenches. This gave the Germans time to scramble out of their dugouts once the barrage had lifted, man their trenches and open a devastating machine-gun fire that cost the 34th Division around 6,500 casualties.

Underground Warfare WW1
R.E.'s mine and counter-mine Messines Ridge which dominated Ypres blown up and stormed, June 7th', 1917 [Image number: 110689] © NAM. 1972-08-67-1-80
La Boiselle Mine Somme
'Looking into the depths of the tremendous crater of our mine fired at La Boisselle on the Somme', 1918 (c) NAM [Image number: 123337]
Lochnagar Crater (c) IWM Q3999

Biographical notes –Simon Jones

Simon Jones Underground Warfare
Simon Jones
Simon Jones was for sixteen years a curator at the Royal Engineers Museum and of the King’s Regiment for National Museums Liverpool.
 
He has been a freelance battlefield tour guide, lecturer and writer since 2004 and taught courses on the First World War for Liverpool and Lancaster Universities, and was a Guest Curator for English Heritage in 2014.
 
For more than a decade he has been researching the tunnelling at La Boisselle on the Somme and was lead historian for the exploration of the tunnel systems and surface archaeology at La Boisselle 2011-2015.
 
He is the author of Underground Warfare 1914-1918 (2010) and World War I Gas Warfare Tactics and Equipment (2007) as well as many articles on tunnelling, gas warfare and other First World War topics, many of which can be found on his blog SimonJonesHistorian.com.
Underground Warfare Simon Jones

Simon is able to offer signed copies of his book Underground Warfare 1914-1918 for £10 UK (including 2nd Class postage) or £14 Europe or £16 Rest of the World (including international standard postage). Contact Simon Jones for payment details (PayPal preferred).

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