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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Lance Cpl. Frank Burton 'Burt' McLane - A Sapper's Story

Date of Birth: November 29, 1897

Place of Birth: Stillwater, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Martha A. McDaniel

Father's Name: Henry Alexander McLane

Date of Enlistment: April 1, 1916 at Guysborough, NS

Regimental Number: 901534

Rank: Lance Corporal*

Force: CEF (Infantry)

Units: 193rd Battalion; 42nd Battalion; 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Coy.; 11th Battalion Canadian Engineers

Location of service: Canada, England, Belgium & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Farmer

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mr. Henry A. McLane (Father)

*: Rank of "Spr" ("Sapper") while serving with 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Coy.

While the majority of Canadian soldiers served in infantry units in the trenches of northern France and Belgium, a small number found themselves working behind or even beneath the front lines.  Such was the case for Lance Corporal Frank Burton 'Burt' McLane, who initially enlisted in the infantry but soon found himself in circumstances he could never have anticipated.

Burt was born at Stillwater, Guysborough County on November 29, 1897, the fourth in a family of six children raised by Henry and Martha (McDaniel) McLane.  An older brother, Henry ('Harry'), joined the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) at Halifax on October 22, 1915.  Perhaps inspired by his brother's example, young Burt "answered the call" on April 1, 1916, enlisting in the 193rd Battalion at Guysborough, NS.

Sapper Frank Burton "Burt" McLane
Burt and his fellow 193rd recruits spent the summer of 1916 completing basic military training at Camp Aldersot.  On October 13, 1916, the regiment boarded the SS Olympic at Halifax, disembarking at Liverpool, England six days later.  When the 193rd and 246th Battalions were dissolved two months later, Burt was transferred to the 42nd Battalion on December 5, 1916 and landed in France the following day.  His time in the infantry, however, was short-lived.  Perhaps it was his small stature - his attestation papers list his height as 5 feet 5 inches and weight as 136 lbs..  Whatever the reason, despite a lack of mining or engineering experience, Pte. Frank Burton McLane was permanently attached to the 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Company, Canadian Engineers on January 1, 1917.

The 2nd Tunnelling Company's war diary reported the arrival of nineteen 'other ranks' (OR) reinforcements - one of whom was 'Sapper' Burt McLane - on January 24, 1917.  At that time, the unit was located near Poperinge, west of Ypres, Belgium.  Burt spent the next 18 months in the field, with the exception of three days in the care of 47th Field Ambulance in mid-August 1917 for treatment of "PUO" (a fever of unknown origin").  He was granted two weeks' leave to the United Kingdom on December 21, 1917.  Upon returning to France, Burt was hospitalized for treatment of a serious infection, spending three months at 51st General Hospital, Etaples before rejoining the unit in the field on April 22, 1918.  While hospitalized, he was awarded a 'Good Conduct Badge' in recognition of his devotion to duty.

During his time with 2nd Tunnneling Coy., Burt experienced the many aspects of its work.  At the time of his arrival in Belgium, both sides were involved in extensive tunnelling operations in the Ypres area, made possible by suitable soil conditions and the proximity of enemy front lines.  On February 11, 1917, for instance, 2nd Tunnelling Company detonated a 'camouflet' - an underground explosive charge designed to destroy enemy fortifications or tunnels.  Five days later, the men completed work on a borehole that was 112 feet deep, the last 27 feet dug through blue clay.  These facts indicate that the Company was actively involved in the area's tunnelling operations.

Lance Cpl. Frank Burton McLane
While such activity might be expected of a tunnelling company, it also provided a variety of vital services for troops in the front lines.  The battalion war diary refers to several construction projects completed during Burt's service.  On April 2, 1917, the Company completed work on an infantry subway measuring three feet by five feet inside its timber supports.  The underground passageway connected Tor Top - one of two elevated heights on the Ypres Salient battlefield - to a second location named "Hedge Street".  On May 9, work was completed on an underground system at "Halfway House", and a second system was finished three days later at "Dormy House".  On June 21, the men completed construction of an underground dressing station.  Company personnel also maintained three roads leading east from St. Eloi during the month of September.

Tunnelling companies also participated in infantry attacks.  On June 7, 1917, British forces launched a major assault on German lines at Mount Sorrel.  Artillery bombardment commenced at 3:10 am, followed by an infantry advance.  The Company war diary describes the sappers' role as the day's events unfolded:

"At Mount Sorrel several of our men followed the Infantry and took possession of the underground German workings (about 1200 feet of galleries were found).  Meanwhile[,] others connected the British and German underground systems by driving a short gallery from Sudbury Listening Post; the connection was made by midday and was immediately used to bring up Infantry reinforcements.  By 7:30 am our sappers had excavated and completed an Artillery O. P. [outpost]… and by 7:30 pm a battered German dug-out had been fixed up as a Battalion Forward Commanding Station."

The Company's sappers were recalled to the front lines later in the day to assist the infantry in repelling a German counter-attack against the newly captured position.

On another occasion, ten of the Company's sappers followed a British raiding party into German lines under cover of darkness.  The men "investigated the German lines for a depth of 1400 yards opposite the Tor Top sector", working for eleven hours "under continual shell and machine gun fire.  They found a few mine and dugout entries[,] most of which had been wrecked by our artillery.  They cut all suspicious wires but found no indication of delayed action mines or traps."

Canadian Tunnelling Coy. - artists' depiction
As experienced 'diggers', sappers were sometimes called upon to rescue comrades from perilous circumstances.  On June 13, 1917, for example, enemy shelling destroyed a gallery and two machine gun posts.  One officer and 24 sappers worked for four hours, successfully digging out and reviving six trapped machine gunners.  On October 8, 1917, sappers worked all night to extinguish a fire in an infantry dugout at Larchwood, thankfully without any casualties being incurred.

A war diary passage at the end of June 1918 provides an overall snapshot of the work completed by Burt and his comrades that month:

"90 % of personnel were employed on Dugout Construction.  10 % were employed supervising Chinese labour who were occupied in Trench Digging, Construction of Barbed Wire Entanglements, and M. G. Emplacement.  Progress of work was adversely affected by an Epidemic of 'Spanish Flue' [sic] which affected the whole Personnel of the Coy."

While not directly involved in combat, the men of 2nd Tunnelling Company were nevertheless in constant peril.  In the two weeks following Burt's arrival, two battalion members were wounded by German sniper fire.  On February 15, 1917, the hazards of tunnelling became tragically apparent when a fire in an underground system at Mount Sorrel resulted in 11 deaths and 1 injury. 

On several occasions, the company was subjected to enemy attack.  On the night of March 25-26, 1917, "after heavy bombardment [the] enemy made an attack on our trenches, but was beaten back by our Lewis Guns."  Two weeks later - on April 9, 1917 - their position suffered a major assault as described in the Company's war diary:

"All afternoon [the] enemy violently bombarded our Front Line Trenches.  At 6:30 pm, he fired at least one camouflet against our Front Line Defense Galleries, rupturing 3 Listening Posts and over 140 feet of gallery.  Three of our listeners were killed.  At 7:30 pm he attacked our trenches but was repulsed.  Only 9 of the enemy reached our line, seven of these were killed and the other two wounded and taken prisoner."

Australian sapper in tunnel beneath Hill 60 - Ypres, Belgium
During the month of May, enemy soldiers launched three night raids on the Company's position, only to be driven off by Lewis Gun fire.  One raid succeeded in entering the Company's trenches, taking an infantryman prisoner.

On occasion, the Company came under direct enemy fire while working.  On July 31, 1917, a large party assigned to construct a 'diversion road' at Hooge was subjected to constant enemy artillery and machine gun fire.  The men were eventually forced to abandon their work "as [the] enemy was using the route which passed north of the Hooge craters as a target for continuous shell fire…. The Co. sustained no casualties due entirely to the sodden condition of the ground[,] which allowed H. E. [high explosive] shells to penetrate deeply before bursting."

Another incident occurred on October 15, 1917, when "during the night a gas shell penetrated Duke Street gallery: 13 of our sappers were sleeping in a dug-out nearby and next day were evacuated as gas casualties."  A month and a half later - December 1, 1917 - sappers commenced work on an underground system for the Royal Garrison Artillery.  The following day, the work site was "badly crimped in nine places by a heavy bombardment with delay-action shells".  Three infantry were killed in the assault, but fortunately 2nd Tunnelling Company suffered no casualties.

While overall statistics are not available, the Company's war diary recorded the casualties for two successive months during Burt's time with the unit.  In June 1917, 9 members were killed or died of wounds and 37 were wounded.  The following month, 5 sappers were killed, 22 wounded, 1 died of sickness, and 5 were gassed.  While not as high as infantry unit casualties, the statistics prove that Burt and his fellow sappers were in constant peril as they carried out their daily tasks.

Diagram and photograph of typical underground system
By mid-1918, changing front line conditions led British commanders to re-evaluate tunnelling companies' role in military operations.  Tunnelling required static front lines, as it was a time-consuming endeavour.  Several major offensives launched by both sides in mid-1917 and early 1918 resulted in significant shifting of the front lines.  As Allied commanders prepared to launch a major assault in response to the failed German 'Spring 1918 offensive', officials decided that the Canadian tunnelling companies had outlived their usefulness.  On July 6, 1918, 2nd Tunnelling Company was officially disbanded, its personnel divided into six parts and re-assigned to one of six Canadian Engineering battalions.  The following day, Sapper F. B. McLane reported for duty with 11th Battalion, Canadian Engineers, the unit with which he served the remainder of his time in uniform.

The 11th Battalion, Canadian Engineers was located at Burbure, near Lens, France when Burt and 85 other sappers from 2nd Tunnelling Company were 'taken on strength'.  The men were organized into a separate unit - 'D' Company - and spent the remainder of the month training before being integrated into the battalion's operations.  In early August 1918, the unit relocated to Tronville Wood, where it provided support for a major infantry attack at Amiens.  Amongst its assignments prior to the battle was inspection of wells and cellar accommodations in nearby Beaucourt.

Working close to the front lines placed the unit well in range of enemy fire.  On the night of August 11, enemy bombardment of its camp killed 2 sappers and wounded 9 others.  Over the next several days, Burt and his 'D' Company comrades erected water tanks in the newly captured village of Rosieres, dug pits, bomb-proofed infantry billets, installed 'fire-stepping' in nearby front trenches, investigated and reclaimed dugouts captured in the attack.  Other battalion companies engaged in road maintenance, erected road signs, deployed trench wire, constructed trench bridges and deepened trenches in the area.

On August 23, the battalion was relieved of front line duty, enjoying several days rest at Bois de Gentelles.  The men relocated to Arras six days later, where they constructed a cavalry track and buried horses killed in the recent fighting.  On September 1, it was back to the front lines in support of an infantry attack at Scarpe.  Burt's company was assigned "[the] task of building [a] horse transport road" as the unit moved forward into captured territory the following day.  The men also filled shell holes and hauled 'road metal' to repair damages incurred during the battle.  On September 6, 'D' Company spent the day salvaging "German Machine Guns and Material".  The battalion retired to 'brigade support ' on the following day, only to endure an attack on its camp "in afternoon and evening with H. E. and Gas Shells".

Sappers completing a bridge across Canal du Nord, France
During the second week of September, 'D' Company constructed a 'dry weather track' from Wancourt to Cherisy, while the battalion's other companies repaired roads and rebuilt bridges destroyed in the recent fighting.  These tasks were central to continuing the offensive against German positions, as they allowed infantry, artillery and supplies to quickly reach newly established front line positions.  After a week of rest, clean-up and training, the battalion once again moved into positions behind the infantry at Canal du Nord as the Canadian Corps prepared for a major assault on this strategic location.

The assault on the canal was launched at 5:20 am September 26, 1918.  The following day, while other battalion units searched the area for water supplies, Burt's Company "did very good work making a crossing on the Canal du Nord… allowing the artillery to get over by 8:00 am[;] during the day they improved this, making it passable for lorries".  Work continued on the crossing for several days before the men retired to Petit Bois for a period of rest and training.

On October 16, Burt was attached to 4th Brigade Canadian Engineers Headquarters, where he received a promotion to the rank of Lance Corporal nine days later.  He spent the final month of the war working in this location while his former comrades constructed bridges at Arleux and Valenciennes.  Shortly after the cessation of hostilities, Burt was granted two weeks' leave to the United Kingdom.  On December 6, he rejoined the 11th Battalion, Canadian Engineers in the field.

By that time, the unit had relocated to Gistoux on the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium.  The men's daily schedule included drill and training in the morning, followed by rest and recreational activities in the afternoon.  The battalion spent Christmas Eve "preparing rooms for different companies' Christmas dinner.  Schools, cinemas, chateaux, etc. being put at our disposal.  The people were very kind and helped by lending dishes, tables, etc. and helping to cook the turkeys".  The following day, "the men had their Christmas dinners by Companies, there was lots to eat also rum and beer, and a merry time was had, dances and concerts followed the dinners, in which the inhabitants joined".  The festivities may have taken a toll on battalion personnel, as the Boxing Day entry noted that "no work was done[,] the men being allowed to recuperate from the effect of the Xmas dinner".

2nd & 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Coy. shoulder patch
The regular schedule of training and recreational activities resumed on December 27.  Three days later, "[an] illuminated clock which we had been making for 4th Div'l Ball was finished and taken to Brussels to be put in place".  The men enjoyed a holiday on New Years' Day 1919, before commencing a schedule of military training until 11 am in the morning, followed by afternoon classes in elementary subjects, Agriculture and French, designed to prepare the men for return to civilian life.  In late January, battalion members were granted short leaves to Brussels in small groups.

Winter arrived in the area with a heavy snowfall on February 5, followed by several days of cold temperatures.  Military training and classes continued into March, when improved weather conditions allowed for a resumption of outdoor activities.  Burt and his comrades had the opportunity to participate in a variety of activities as spring approached.  On March 14, "40 men [were] despatched to Brussels to fix [the] boxing ring at Palais d'Ete for Div'l Sports".  The 4th Division Boxing Tournament was staged the following day, after which the "ring was dismantled by 'B' Coy".  On March 16, the battalion's team won the Brigade Association Football Championship.  On March 25, a 'composite company' represented the battalion as the 10th Infantry Brigade was formally inspected by the King of Belgium.  Finally, on March 29, an Army boxing competition was held, along with "Canada Night at Opera Brussels".  "Special trains were run" to assist interested personnel in attending these events.

Daily training and educational classes continued until mid-April, when each company held a dinner and dance in anticipation of its departure.  In late April and early May, battalion members were transported to LeHavre, France, where they awaited passage to England.  On May 4, Burt travelled across the English Channel and was 'taken on strength' by 'F' Wing, CCC Bramshott.  After completing the required medical and dental inspections, Burt departed England on May 31, 1919 aboard HMT Adriatic.  Seven days later, he arrived in Halifax and was discharged from military service on June 15, 1919.

After his return, Burt settled into civilian life as a farmer in the Stillwater area.  On February 12, 1925 he married Annie Laurie (Newington) Bixby, a 33-year-old widow.  A resident of New Glasgow, Annie was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, the location to which her parents, John William and Annie J. (Williams) Newington - natives of Kent England - had immigrated.  The marriage ceremony took place at the Presbyterian Manse, Antigonish. 

Sapper F. B. McLane's 'dog tag'
Sadly, Annie passed away five years later.  After more than a decade as a widower, Burt married Ella Marian Hines on June 30, 1943 at Stellarton.  The couple took up residence in nearby Springville, Pictou County after Burt became ill with Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS).  Neither of Bert's marriages resulted in children. 

Frank Burton McLane died at Springville on August 5, 1947 and was laid to rest in Riverside Cemetery, Sherbrooke.  His service with 2nd Tunnelling Coy. and 11th Battalion Canadian Engineers represents another dimension of the many contributions that young men from Guysborough County made to the Canadian war effort. 


Regimental Record of Lance Corporal Frank Burton McLane, no. 901534.  Library and Archives Canada: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7038 - 50.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of 2nd Tunnelling Co., Canadian Engineers.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 5003 , Reel T-10850, File : 685.  Available online.

War Diary of 11th Battalion, Canadian Engineers.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 5001 , Reel T-10846, File : 675.  Available online.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

BEF & CEF Tunnelling Companies

While World War I witnessed the development of new combat technologies such as the tank and airplane, both sides also reverted to a strategy not employed for centuries.  The practice of tunnelling was part of siege warfare tactics dating back to ancient Greece, Rome and China, and was a key element in Middle Ages conflicts.  As modern warfare moved onto open battlefields, the strategy fell into disuse. 

Several factors led to its revival during the opening months of World War I.  German strategists expected a quick victory on the Western Front following their surprise invasion of Belgium and northern France in early August 1914.  Their hopes were dashed when desperate British and French forces managed to halt the advancing German army mere kilometres from Paris.  By December 1914, both sides found themselves entrenched along a front stretching from the English Channel to the Swiss border.  Military commanders on both sides began a desperate search for a strategy that would break this stalemate and lead to a final victory.

Two additional factors led to the revival of tunnelling as a military strategy.  In order for its use to be effective, opposing front lines had to be close to one another and geological conditions suitable.  Three particular sectors on the front lines provided such circumstances - the northern sectors from Ypres, Belgium to Armentieres, France; the central sectors from Armentieres to Arras; and the southern sectors of the Somme battlefield.
Mining locations in Ypres - Armentiers Sector
The Germans were the first to implement this strategy in an attack near Givenchy, France.  Tunnelling from their forward observation posts - known as "saps" - under opposing British trenches manned by the Indian Corps, the Germans placed ten explosive charges, each weighing 50 kilograms.  On December 20, 1914, the mines were simultaneously detonated.  The explosion and subsequent infantry attack inflicted 800 casualties on the surprised defending troops.  The incident revealed that the Germans had adopted tunnelling as a strategy on the Western Front.

Mining Sites in the Armentiers - Arras Sectors
The Allied response was predictable.  While the Royal Engineers were skilled in the construction of saps, basic tunnelling and mining operations, no "specialized" units existed.  British commanders immediately set about organizing the first of several "tunnelling companies" specifically trained to dig tunnels and plant mines under enemy lines.
Mining Sites in the Somme Region
On December 28, 1914, British Major John Norton Griffiths, a former Member of Parliament, civil engineer and officer with the 2nd King Edwards' Horse, suggested to British commanders that the army hire 'clay kickers' - men who employed in digging the London Underground as well as sewage systems in British cities - to conduct tunnelling operations along the Western Front.  In the meantime, commanders identified qualified individuals - men with mining experience - who had already enlisted, forming temporary "mining sections" within each brigade until tunnelling companies could be recruited and deployed.

Major Griffiths meanwhile set about organizing the first "tunnelling team" from amongst former employees of his civil engineering firm.  In peacetime, his company had constructed small-bore tunnels for sewage systems in England and Scotland.  When one such operation ceased on February 17, 1915, eighteen experienced 'clay kickers' were laid off, only to immediately enlist in the British army and be transported to the front lines in France four days later.  In recruiting the initial companies, Griffiths deserves credit for persuading British military authorities to focus on mining skill and overlook shortcomings (age, physical stature, discipline) that may have disqualified the men from military service.  Their later successes were proof of his foresight and sound judgment of character.

Coincidentally, the first British mine was detonated by British engineers of the 28th Division at Hill 60, near Ypres, Belgium, on February 17, 1915.  The event signified the adoption of tunnelling as a military strategy on the Western Front.  Subsequently, both sides constructed tunnels under enemy lines, laying explosive charges for detonation in co-ordination with infantry attacks.  At the same time, the armies implemented strategies to detect and destroy enemy tunnelling operations.

Diagram of typical tunneling operation. (Source: Spartacus Educational website.)
In the same month as the first successful mining operation, British commanders officially approved plans to create nine Tunnelling Companies.  The first units were formed by integrating men within existing ranks with individuals specifically recruited for the task.  A total of twelve companies were in the field by the end of the year, with an additional unit created in 1916.  Each consisted of 5 officers and 270 "sappers", assisted by infantrymen who served as labourers. 

Recruitment focused on civilians with mining skills, regardless of age.  Men who were well beyond "fighting years" thus found themselves part of the war effort.  Their skills, honed in British coal mines, were soon apparent.  British tunnelling companies dug at an average rate of 8 metres (8.7 yards) a day, as compared to the German rate of 2 metres (2.2 yards).  Many of the men who provided support labor were "bantams" - individuals rejected for infantry duty due to their small stature, but ideally suited for work in cramped, underground tunnels.

Several "colonial" tunnelling companies were also organized in 1916, Canada contributing a total of three units.  The 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company was raised from Eastern Canadian recruits and trained in the Ypres Sector before relieving the British 182nd Tunnelling Company near Armentieres, France in March 1916.  The 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Company was recruited in British Columbia and Alberta and deployed at the front lines in April 1916.  The 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company was formed from mining sections initially created within the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions. It received its first assignment at St. Marie-Cappel, France in January 1916.  One New Zealand and three Australian tunnelling companies arrived on the Western Front by May 1916.  By the end of the year, a total of 30 Allied tunnelling companies were actively working in the combat zone.

Setting explosives in a tunnel.
Tunnelling companies first worked in the Ypres Salient, where mining conditions were ideal.  By April 10, 1915, British units had laid six mines, containing a total of 4500 kg (10 000 lbs.) of ammonal explosive, beneath German lines at Hill 60.  The resulting explosion generated a tremor that split the ground under the entire hill, producing flames that reached 90 meters into the sky as well as a 21-meter (70-foot) crater on the battlefield.  The surrounding German trenches instantly collapsed, crushing soldiers where they stood.

For the next two years, both sides dug tunnels under enemy lines.  The primary strategy - placement and detonation of mines beneath enemy positions - became a standard part of attacks in areas suitable for tunnelling.  Infantry immediately rushed forward to capture the crater created by the explosion.  "Crater fighting", as it became known, played a central role in many 1915 and 1916 battles.  Mines were also employed in support of larger infantry assaults at Aubers Ridge (May 1915), Loos (September 1915) and the Somme (July 1916).  The goal was straightforward - destroy sections of enemy trench and create panic among defenders as infantry advanced across the battlefield.

Each side also employed "counter-mining" strategies as the war progressed.  Soldiers in the trenches drove a stick into the ground, holding the upper end in their teeth to detect underground vibrations indicating underground activity.  A second detection method involved sinking a water-filled drum into the trench floor, soldiers lowering an ear into the water to listen for sounds below.  A third method used filled water bottles placed on the trench floor and medical stethoscopes to listen for underground activity.  Tunnellers often dug "side-shaft" listening posts to detect enemy tunnelling operations in the same area.  The British later developed a device called the "Geophone", capable of detecting underground noises at a distance of 50 metres.

Entrance to a German tunnel near Champagne, France.
Perhaps the most effective method of countering enemy tunnelling was the "camouflet".  Charges were routinely placed inside tunnels as they were constructed, in some instances in sections dug toward suspected enemy mining.  When detonated, the explosion created "fissures" beneath the surface, making the ground unsuitable for tunnelling.  If an enemy tunnel was detected, detonation of a small camouflet produced a chamber that collapsed the enemy tunnel below without creating a surface crater.  Another strategy utilized iron rods to push small, torpedo-like charges into the floor of a counter-tunnel.  Detonation destroyed the tunnel below without affecting the surface landscape.

While all tunnelling units engaged in setting underground explosives, their efforts were not limited to mining.  The men also dug subways, cable trenches, saps, and underground chambers for signal or medical services.  In suitable locations, extensive networks of tunnels were dug behind Allied front lines, allowing for movement of men and supplies into the front trenches without enemy detection. 

The best example of tunnelling efforts assisting a Canadian attack occurred at Vimy Ridge.  In the months prior to the April 9, 1917 attack, tunnelling companies dug an incredible 20 kilometres (12 miles) of subways for foot traffic, tramways equipped with rails for moving ammunition to the front lines and evacuating wounded soldiers, and light railways - all concealed from the enemy.  The tunnelling system housed 24 000 men prior to the attack and was equipped with electric lighting, kitchens, latrines and a medical centre.  A 250-metre section of the Grange Subway has been preserved and is accessible to the public at Vimy Ridge in recognition of the tunnelling companies' pivotal role in this milestone Canadian victory.

Underground chamber near Arras, France.
A 'clay kicking' team consisted of three men.  A 'kicker' worked the tunnel face with a device fastened to the soles of his feet, his back supported by a board.  As he cut chunks of soil from the tunnel face with a downward kick, he passed the earth over his head to a 'bagger' who dumped the debris into sandbags and loaded them into a cart.  A 'trammer' pushed the loaded, rubber-tired trolley along a small-gauge rail to the surface, where supporting labourers dispersed the load.  On its return journey, the cart carried timber for tunnel supports positioned every 9 inches as construction proceeded.  The miners worked in 6 or 12 hour rotating shifts, often under cover of darkness on the surface so as to conceal earth disposal from enemy aircraft.

Needless to say, tunnellers endured challenging working conditions.  Usually operating by candlelight as electricity was in short supply, the men toiled in silence so as to avoid enemy detection.  The tunnels were cold, cramped and damp, frequently containing significant amounts of water that seeped from above.   Detonation of enemy camouflets was a constant danger.  In some instances, miners accidentally broke through into an enemy tunnel, resulting in intense fighting metres beneath the battlefield. 

Tunnellers were also prone to several ailments.  The men suffered from high rates of "trench foot" and other podiatry ailments caused by damp working conditions.  Fatigue from the demanding physical labor was common.  In addition, carbon monoxide gas from artillery shells and bullets seeped through the soil into the tunnels, creating the potential for asphyxiation or deadly explosions.  Mice and canaries were officially issued to tunnelling companies in order to detect the presence of gas.

Detonation of Lochnagar mine at the Somme - July 1, 1916.
 Mines tunnelled under enemy lines played a key role in several 1916 and 1917 battles.  On March 27, 1916, six mines were detonated under German positions near Messines, Belgium.  The largest - dug by the 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company - was located at St. Eloi and contained 43 400 kg (95 600 lbs.) of explosives.  The resulting blast created the infamous "St. Eloi Craters", which Canadian infantry quickly occupied and struggled to defend, as the men were exposed to enemy artillery fire.

Prior to the launching of the Somme offensive, tunnelling companies placed ten explosive charges beneath German positions along the Hawthorne Ridge, near the French village of Beaumont Hamel.  At 7:26 am July 1, 1916, engineers detonated the explosives located in the tunnels.  Two minutes later, British and colonial troops advanced across 'no man's land" toward the German front lines.

Tunnelling strategy reached its apex at Messines, Belgium in June 1917.  In January, British companies began digging 22 mines beneath German lines, some as long as 660 metres (2160 feet) and at depths of up to 38 metres (125 feet).  In total, the miners dug more than 8000 metres of tunnels, in some cases starting as far as 460 metres (1500 feet) behind British front lines.  A total of 600 tonnes of ammonal explosives were set in place.  At 3:10 am June 7, 1917, 19 mines were detonated, causing an estimated 10 000 German casualties.  The subsequent explosion was so loud that it was reportedly heard in London.  A 40 000 kg (90 000 lb.) mine placed beneath German lines at Spanbroekmolen, near Messines, created a crater 132 metres (430 feet) in diameter and 12.5 metres (40 feet) deep.  Today, it is preserved as a memorial known as the "Pool of Peace".
Contemporary picture of Lochnagar Crater
The Messines mines marked the beginning of tunnelling's decline.  British tunnelling companies had clearly demonstrated their superiority over German mining efforts.  More importantly, the war entered a more "fluid" stage in which the front lines were set in motion.  Major Allied offensives at Arras, Messines and Passchendaele in 1917, followed by the German 1918 "spring offensive" and the Allied counter-attack of August 1918, destroyed the stalemate upon which tunnelling depended for implementation.

As a result, in July 1917, British military commanders decided to disband many of the tunnelling companies and reassign their personnel to other engineering or infantry units.  The few remaining companies continued to work on underground subways and shelters for front line infantry.  One such facility at Hill 60 accommodated up to 3000 soldiers.  During the German spring 1918 offensive, several tunnelling companies were pressed into duty as "emergency infantry".  By June 1918, as Allied forces slowly began to advance into German-held territory, companies cleared tunnels and shafts of enemy explosives left behind as German forces retreated.

After the war's end, many craters remained as part of the French and Belgian landscape.  The largest on the Western Front - Lochnagar Crater, on the Somme battlefields - was used as a garbage dump for years before it was privately purchased and restored as a historic battlefield site in 1979.  In several locations, unexploded Allied and German mines still lie beneath the surface of the landscape.  On July 17, 1955, one such mine in the Messines area was struck by lightning and exploded, killing one cow and damaging local property but thankfully causing no human casualties.  Other Allied and German mines have never been located, leaving tonnes of unexploded charges somewhere beneath the former battlefields of World War I.

A section of subway at Vimy Ridge.

Further Information:

Visit the following BBC News article for information on the archaeological exploration of tunnels near La Boiselle, France, where both sides participated in mining and counter-mining activities throughout 1915 and 1916:

WWI Underground: Unearthing the hidden tunnel war

The BBC link below contains a short video of the tunnels being explored by British and French archaeologists at La Boiselle, France.

Excavating tunnels from World War I

Visit the following website to view a six-minute video of engineers exploring a WWI tunnel system near Loos, France.

The Durand Group: Descending into a multi-level WWi tunnel system at Loos

The following web site highlights the service of World War I tunnellers from the Ballarat region of Australia.  The Facebook page contains a variety of interesting photographs and items from the war.

Mining Mud & Medals - Facebook Page


The Tunnelling Companies RE.  The Long, Long Trail: The British Army of 1914-1918 - for family historians.  Available online.

Tunnelling and the First World War.  Spartacus Educational.  Available online.

Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers.  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Available online.