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How the two sides dug deeper and deeper in search of military gain; North East historian JOHN SADLER on the 100th anniversary of a significant moment early in the First World War - and one which led to a dirty and dangerous new aspect of the conflict.

EXACTLY a century ago yesterday, on the Western Front, the seemingly unstoppable rush of German might was halted by desperate French counter-attacks at La Boisselle in the Department of the Somme.

The name of this small village soon hammered into stark rubble by the fury of industrial war would become all too familiar to British Tommies.

From December in that first year, the French began tunnelling operations, soon matched by their enemy's counter-measures, a war below the war.

The Western front was a parallel war. Whilst millions burrowed beneath what had been fields and lanes to make trenches, others dug far deeper. Since Joshua brought down the walls of Jericho and King John sacrificed pigs to tumble Rochester's corner tower, mining has been a feature of siege warfare.

The Western Front was the greatest siege in history.

As trench lines hardened, as troops became used to this static, submerged existence, both sides sought to gain advantage by burrowing under the other's lines.

This became a new dimension of conflict. Miles of subterranean galleries dug, partly defensive to intercept an enemy doing the same and partly offensive.

Mines packed with explosives would be detonated under key bastions in the enemy line to clear the attackers' path. The results of these huge detonations were often mixed.

Sir John Norton-Griffiths, better known to imperial and Great War contemporaries as 'Empire Jack' or 'Hell-Fire Jack', had served in the Matabele and Second Boer Wars. He became a successful engineer and, in 1914, raised a volunteer battalion at his own expense and was promoted major.

He was the Tommy's Vauban, directing the construction of fortifi-cations all along the line which he toured in a Rolls Royce, suitably equipped with a first rate travelling cellar.

When German mining commenced in earnest during the early months of 1915, Kitchener immediately sought out Norton-Griffiths and the British mining effort really got under way.

By August 1915, the British had assumed responsibility for the Somme sector and, at la Boisselle, inherited a blasted lunar heath, pitted and cratered as though by meteors, the lines a mere 45 metres apart with the Germans having the advantage of height. Tunnelling Company 179 took over the old French workings in what became known as 'the Glory Hole'. Our sappers dug deeper; from 12 metres to twice that and finally down to 30 metres, using up to 6,000kg of explosive, latterly ammonal per charge.

This work was hard, dirty, and thankless; Tommies did not like their mole-like sappers; workings drew shell-fire and fatigue parties to man pumps were deeply unpopular.

German miners were equally industrious and in October 1915, 179 Company began to sink a series of deep shafts to interdict the enemy's labours. From a depth of 24 metres they began burrowing two galleries left and right of the main 'W' shaft.

Using geophones, on 19th November, Captain Henry Hance spent six suspenseful hours listening for sound of the enemy diggers. He reckoned they must be no more than 15 metres away when he ordered the chamber be prepared with a full charge of 6,000kg.

He wasn't intending to detonate immediately, preferring to let the industrious foe burrow nearer. Regrettably, the Germans had other ideas and at 01.30 hours on November 22, detonated their own charge.

The blast set off a chain reaction and the British charge went up, sending a subterranean hurricane of deadly carbon monoxide through the tunnels. Both galleries collapsed and six men were left entombed.

The bodies of William Walker, Andrew Taylor, James Glen and finally Robert Gavin, all Scots miners, were recovered. The remains of two men; John Lane and Ezekiel Parkes, both experienced hewers from Staffordshire lay too deep and remain buried some 24 metres below the Glory Hole.

For those interested a very |remarkable archaeological project the La Boisselle Study Group has been undertaking archaeological investigations of the site, the work is truly astonishing and the site has yielded a fascinating insight into the work of the tunnelling companies - they can be found at

As trench lines hardened, both sides sought to gain advantage by burrowing under the other's lines


Poppies at the 'Glory Hole at La <B Boisselle. Some men are entombed far beneath the surface

A stretcher case seen in silhouette being brought in from La Boisselle during the Battle of Albert in 1916. As <Bmen fought for tiny slices of territory above ground, far below them was a dark, dirty and dangerous struggle.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Sep 29, 2014
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