Was the tunnellers’ secret war the most barbaric of WW1?

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1. An unusual band of brothers

We’re familiar with the story of trench warfare on the battlefields of France. But new light is being shed on a special breed of men who fought perhaps the most terrifying war along the Western Front. Their job was not to charge over the top of the trenches into No Man’s Land, but to sink explosive-packed tunnels deep beneath it.

The allied tunnelling companies operated in such secrecy that little was known of their exploits for years after the war. Working in total silence up to 100ft underground they set out to detonate mines beneath the enemy’s trenches.

At each step of the way they had to search out and destroy German tunnellers busy digging the other way. Remarkably this deadly war of nerves was waged by civilians with little or no military training. And they were led by an eccentric Tory MP and millionaire.

2. Hellfire Jack and his moles and clay-kickers

John Norton-Griffiths, MP for Wednesbury, was an engineer with a revolutionary plan to take his workforce to war. He knew the clay-kickers he had employed to extend Manchester’s sewers in 1913 could tunnel faster and quieter than the Germans.

From Peter Barton’s BBC documentary The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars

Norton-Griffiths was charged with forming the Royal Engineer tunnelling companies. He recruited miners who had worked underground since childhood, tough and resourceful characters of all ages and political backgrounds who often had been rejected by the army on grounds of health or age. Within hours of leaving Civvy Street, Hellfire Jack, as he came to be known, had them digging beneath France and Flanders, immersed in a dark struggle to the death.

3. A deadly game of cat and mouse in the dark

Every day the tunnellers worked with the constant fear of sudden death. Carbon monoxide poisoning and tunnel collapse were an ever-present risk, as was the abrupt explosion of any mines they had already set.

But their biggest concerns were being blown up or buried alive by the enemy’s tunnellers, or having to fight them hand-to-hand in the dark. The trick was to spot the German tunnellers before they spotted you, and to do this Norton-Griffiths’ men used a wide range of listening devices.

As the conflict wore on the allied tunnellers began to gain ground on their German counterparts, and at Messines Ridge in Flanders they were to have their greatest success.

4. The biggest blast of the underground war

Infographic showing the effects of explosions on the Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917

At 3.10am on 7 June 1917 the work of the Allied tunnelling companies reached its zenith when 19 mines were blown along the Messines Ridge in West Flanders, Belgium.

The explosions are said to have registered on a seismograph in Switzerland, and were heard by David Lloyd George over 150 miles (241 km) away in Downing Street, London. Following the blasts it took just three hours for the British troops to take the German positions.

5. A miner’s life and death underground

In autumn 2013 Peter Barton traced the last resting place of a Welsh miner at La Boisselle, northern France. Sapper William Arthur Lloyd, of Broughton, Wrexham, was one of five men killed while tunnelling at the Somme in December 1915.

Lloyd's family at home knew nothing of his fate, other than he had been killed in the war. This is his story. (Includes film courtesy of Birdsong Working Title Ltd.)

6. How the war left the tunnellers behind

The Messines Ridge mines of June 1917 proved to be the last hurrah of the allied tunnelling companies.

In three years of static trench warfare the enlisted miners and clay-kickers had come from nowhere to catch up and overtake their German equivalents. By the time of Messines Ridge they had proved they could move faster, in greater silence and with more deadly success.

But after 1917 the way battles were fought began to change. The war began to move faster than Hellfire Jack’s tunnellers were able to dig and opportunities to carry out mining attacks faded away.

As the front lines receded across the map the tunnelling companies were switched to other general engineering duties, from digging dugouts to building roads and bridges.

In the final months of the war many of the tunnelling companies saw action at ground level as infantrymen.

But years after the war, as the veil of secrecy around them began to fade, there was a growing sense that the allied commanders had not made the most of their tunnelling supremacy.

7. Was the tunnellers’ war the most dangerous?

Considering the terrifying conditions in which they lived and died, if you were a conscripted miner where would you have preferred to fight?

Above ground in the trenches

As an infantryman

You selected

Above ground in the trenches

As an infantryman

Many miners saw the army as a chance to escape from a life underground and volunteered for the infantry. Most were later transferred to tunnelling companies.

Below ground in the tunnels

As a Royal Engineer tunneller

You selected

Below ground in the tunnels

As a Royal Engineer tunneller

Miners were in their element underground and although it was a treacherous job they were better equipped for survival beneath the trenches.