Among the 600,000 victims were tunnellers, soldiers specialised in digging tunnels under the enemy’s front line. Tunnelling was mainly done by professional miners.
In 1916 the Allied started to tunnel under the German positions around Messines. They deployed special ‘Tunnelling Companies’. For two years Australian, British, and Canadian miners had engaged in subterranean warfare, digging an intricate tunnel system under the enemy’s front line. The Allies used these tunnels to further tactical advantage, packing massive charges of the explosive ammonal to obliterate enemy defences.
More dangerous setbacks were experienced as countermining activities by the “Mineure”, the German tunnellers, were stepped up. Attacks and counterattacks. Tunnels lost and new ones opened up. Sometimes, fighting took place deep within the actual tunnels. In the early days, it often happened in the tunnels closer to the surface that one side emerged by accident into an enemy tunnel.
The huge Australian effort was at Hill 60, where Tunnelling Companies worked for months, reinforcing and protecting the large mines in their zone.
On the morning of 7 June 1917, at 4.10 am local time (Zero Hour), the Allied exploded 19 of the 24 deep mines, almost simultaneously, between Hill 60 (Zillebeke) and ‘The Birdcage’ (south-west of Warneton). The gigantic explosions destroyed the enemy positions and created huge craters in the landscape. One bunker was actually turned upside down.
Follow the itinerary of the Battle of the Mines and discover the consequences of the work of tunnelers and miners in the Flanders Fields landscape.
Captain M. Greener, 175th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers wrote:
One day we broke into the top of an enemy gallery, and as the enemy were heard close by, an emergency charge of fifteen pounds of gun cotton was tamped and fired near the hole. Actually, while the charge was being lit, the enemy were heard trying to enlarge the hole which they had discovered in their gallery. After the charge had gone up and the mine was reported free from gas, an explosion party was organized and an advance was made into the enemy gallery. This gallery was lit by electric light and when the Germans heard our party advancing they turned on the light. But our officer had foreseen this danger. He had run ahead and had cut the leads of the lamps well forward of the party, with the result that only the part of the gallery occupied by the enemy was illuminated. Two Germans were seen advancing, one of whom was shot. Both sides then retired, and after two attempts to destroy the gallery with small charges we eventually placed a charge of 200 pounds in position and exploded it, with the result that the German gallery was entirely closed up and the column of smoke and gas of the explosion which arose from the shaft gave our gunners accurate information of its position, and very effective firing practice on the German trenches interrupted the German mining activity for some time. Our miners had been working for five days within twelve feet of the German gallery and had not been heard.
Hair-raising adventures of this kind were a frequent occurrence in mine galleries that were relatively close to the surface – and those galleries, with listening posts at many points, were needed in order to detect German counterminers. What the Germans did not know, however, was that other, deeper tunnel systems were being dug far below the tunnels they had discovered.