Tommy, p.52Richard Holmes
Before the war the army gave map references using what was known as the ‘Bingo’ system, which appears to have come into use in the British army in about 1885, and was certainly current in the Boer War. A pre-war order, referring to a mutually-agreed map, might be:
Enemy positions stretch along the ridge from the V in VINE HOUSE as far as the first R in CROSSROADS. Our forces will establish a battery in the wood 200 yards SOUTH of the Y in ROPLEY and push cavalry forward to the T in STREAM and 50 yards further NORTH.
The system was not foolproof: there were long-running Boer War jokes about which R in MODDER RIVER the writer actually meant.169
The army began the First World War with the Bingo system, as Captain Robert Dolby, medical officer of 2/King’s Own Scottish Borderers, remembered.
The ambulance wagons were to come to Lorgies to the cross roads … The position of these cross roads on the map coincided with the ‘L’ of Lorgies; hence, when special messages were sent to the field ambulance, the place of meeting was always designated by its map position in relation to one of the letters of the printed word. So much has this map reading and map designation become a feature of the service that it is told of one private soldier addressing his chum, ‘Where shall I meet you, Bill?’ ‘At the second “o” in bloody,’ was his reply.170
In 1915 the Bingo system was replaced by the more methodical grid-reference system, with which generations of Sandhurst cadets would become depressingly familiar. Peter Chasseaud, doyen of the war’s topographical historians, tells us how it worked:
Each 1:40,000 sheet was divided into 6,000 yard squares, described by capital letters. These were subdivided into 36 numbered 1,000 yard squares, which were then quartered into 500 yard sub-squares designated a, b, c and d. A point within a sub-square could be described by two or four figure co-ordinates taken from the SW corner, giving easting first and then northing. Each 1:40,000 sheet was divided into four 1:20,000 sheets, which in turn were divided into four 1:10,000 sheets. The map reference on all these was identical.
In practice, for a soldier wishing to find the full reference for the southern tip of High Wood on the Somme, it would work as follows: the reference would begin with the number of the 1:40,000 map sheet, in this case 57cSW3, which establishes that the map is one of those covering the general area of the Somme (57d sheets lie to its west and 57b sheets to its east). A capital letter – in this case M – defines the 6,000-yard square in which the wood lies. The 1,000-yard square is numbered 4, and the 500-yard sub-square within it is c. Within this sub-square he would first establish the position of the wood edge in eastings, estimating how far from left to right it lies in tenths. It is nine-tenths of the way along, so earns the figure 9. He would then do the same for northings: here the tip of the wood lies right on the line, so earns 0. His full reference for the southern edge of High Wood is thus: 57cSW3 M4c90. This would be close enough for most sorts of work, but an even more precise definition could be found by giving the subdivisions of eastings and northings in hundreds rather than tenths, although there was little point in trying to attain this degree of accuracy save on 1:10,000 trench maps.
The same method works in reverse. We saw earlier how Lieutenant Colonel U. L. Hooke of the Queen’s was buried in the field. His battalion’s Army Book 120 gives the location of his grave at H.23.b.7.5, Ref 1/40,000 51b. On the 1:10,000 series this is sheet 51b NW3, and from it we can see that the colonel was buried on the southern edge of the village of Fampoux, east of Arras, just north of the Arras-Cambrai railway line. Utten Lamont Hooke, killed at the age of thirty-six and, as the cemetery register informs us, the husband of Enid A. Hooke of 50 Temple Road, Croydon, still lies there, in Plot I, Row C and Grave 35 of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Level Crossing Cemetery, Fampoux.
If the engineers discovered novel techniques as far as mapping was concerned, they blended old and new to take the war underground. Medieval engineers had dug beneath besieged castles, secured their tunnels with wooden pit-props, smeared the wood with pig fat and then fired it. When the props burnt the tunnels collapsed, and the fortifications above sank on their foundations. The advent of gunpowder made the business more hazardous and spectacular: chambers were packed with barrels of powder and then exploded. An attacker could blow up part of a fortress, breaching its defences, while a defender could use countermines, exploding them under attacking troops as they massed for the assault. The traditional importance of military mining is underlined by the fact that the Royal Engineers had themselves evolved from the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners. However, even the most traditionally-minded sapper could not have guessed, in August 1914, just how important mining would once again become.
Given the resemblance of trench warfare to sieges, it is scarcely surprising that both sides took to mining. The Germans began in December 1914 by exploding ten mines beneath a sector held by the Indian Corps at Festubert. British attempts at retaliation in January 1915 failed. The sector chosen was simply too wet, and water entered the tunnels dug by 20th Fortress Company Royal Engineers more quickly than the pumps could shift it. The Germans helpfully hoisted a notice, in English, in their trenches. ‘No good your mining,’ it read. ‘It can’t be done. We’ve tried.’171 In February the Germans exploded a mine beneath a battalion of East Yorkshires at St-Eloi, just south of Ypres, and the demand for retaliation grew.
John Norton Griffiths, Conservative MP and civil engineer, had already been pressing the War Office to employ what he called ‘moles’, labourers who had been working on a tunnelled drainage system in Manchester using a technique called clay-kicking. A man would sit with his back against a wooden rest, with a special spade between his feet. As he kicked it forward to dig out clay, his mate reached past him to drag the debris out. In February 1915 Norton Griffiths was summoned to see Lord Kitchener. He demonstrated the technique of clay-kicking on the floor of Kitchener’s office, using a fire shovel from the grate, and was at once told to recruit 10,000 of his moles. He left for France immediately, and called on the BEF’s chief engineer, Brigadier General George Fowke, wearing what James Edmonds – then a sapper colonel and later the official historian – called ‘something between uniform and hunting kit’. He soon received formal War Office approval to raise the first Royal Engineer tunnelling companies, numbered 170 to 178.
Norton Griffiths encountered a host of problems in raising his miners. There were predictable difficulties over pay: clay-kickers were entitled to six shillings a day, their mates a mere 2/2d. Some men, enlisted, as they thought, specifically for mining duties, did not take comfortably to military discipline, and had to cope with some mining equipment that had served in the Crimea. But work was quickly out in hand, and on 17 April 1915, 171 Tunnelling Company blew the top off Hill 60, in the Ypres salient, just beating German miners, who planned to explode a mine of their own on the 19th. Although the Germans recaptured Hill 60 in the gas attack which so infuriated Ernest Shephard, the pattern was set, and over the next two years British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand miners grew increasingly effective. On 19 June 1915, 175 Tunnelling Company exploded the biggest mine of the war thus far, containing 3,500 lbs of ammonal, beneath Hooge Ridge on the Menin Road.
Just over a year later, mines on an even bigger scale were an integral part of the British plan of attack on the first day of the Somme. Nineteen mines had been dug beneath strongpoints in the German front line on the Somme, and one of them, which produced Lochnagar crater, which still pits the fields just south of La Boisselle, contained 66,000 lbs of ammonal in two charges 52 feet below the surface. When it was exploded, at 7.28 on the morning of 1 July, it left a crater 90 yards across and 70 feet deep, with lips 15 feet high. The explosion could be heard in London. Mines like this did not simply destroy German trenches and obliterate their garrisons, but they shook the earth so severely as to wreck deep dugouts some distance from the blast. Yet they did not guarantee tactical success. The mine beneath Hawthorn Ridge, near Beaumont Hamel, was blown at 7.20 am, d
It had long been axiomatic that, as Harry Ogle reported in 1915, when a mine was exploded: ‘The enemy lip of the crater had to be occupied if possible and put into a state of defence or at least denied to the enemy.’173 At Hawthorn Ridge parties of 2/Royal Fusiliers rushed for the crater even as the debris was settling: the Germans, who had been using earphones to trace the progress of British mining, were ready, and had men in reserve to secure their own side of the crater: the Fusiliers were eventually dislodged. Corporal Ashurst, pinned down in No Man’s Land with the leading elements of his own battalion, ‘noticed a few of them running for their lives back to the front line’ much later in the day: 2/Royal Fusiliers lost 561 men that day, including their commanding officer.
Mines were next used on a large scale when Plumer’s 2nd Army assaulted Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917. Some of the mines exploded that morning had been started in 1915, and the entire mining programme showed just how large an enterprise mining had become since that first British mine had been exploded under Hill 60 just over two years before. Each army now had a Controller of Mines with a specialist staff. There were more than 30,000 men in British, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian tunnelling companies and their supporting units. In suitable areas a shallow defensive mine gallery, intended to detect and disrupt German mining, would run below the front line. Offensive mines ran deeper, their horizontal galleries generally approached by way of a vertical shaft. In the Messines area miners sinking these shafts had to contend with surface soil, then sludgy quicksand, and then a layer of blue clay which expanded on contact with the air and had to be very carefully shored up with stout timber to prevent the shaft from caving in.
Clay-kickers, lying against their wooden frames, drove the galleries forward. Their mates shovelled the spoil they excavated into sandbags and dragged them back to the start of a track which carried trolleys, and these were pushed along to the shaft. Men working at the top hoisted the sandbags to the surface, and once there they then had to be shifted far enough behind the British front line for their presence not to make the mine shafts obvious to aerial observation. Hand-operated pumps sent fresh air down into the galleries, and miners took canaries down with them, keeping a watchful eye on the bird’s health as they worked. Breathing apparatus helped rescue squads to make their way to men overwhelmed by gas. Frank Dunham of 25/London found it ‘most interesting to see these miners digging away, and strutting up with planks of wood as they went along. Where the width of the tunnel permitted, trolleys were used to wheel the soil away. Another strange thing was that these tunnels were lit by electric light, worked from a dynamo.’174
Sapper Jack Lyon of 171 Tunnelling Company helped dig one of the mines beneath Messines Ridge, exploded with such effect on 7 June 1917:
Each shift comprised twelve men with an RE Corporal in charge. At the face were three men who were RE Sappers. Three men worked the trolleys, one man manned the ‘windjammer’ or air pump. One man at the shaft-bottom kept the sump there empty and hitched sandbags to the rope from the windlass at the pithead. [There were] two men at this windlass, one man unhitching the bags and passing them back to the other, who took them to the dumping ground. At the tunnel face one man was engaged in ‘clay-kicking’. Sitting with his back against an inclined plank fixed between the floor and the roof he used both feet to press a small sharp spade called a ‘grasper’ into the face and lever out a lump of clay. [His mate] put this into a sandbag. When full, the bag was passed to the third man who dragged it to the far end of the trolley-rails. As each man was a Sapper, they could relieve each other so the face-man ‘kicked’ for two hours of the six-hour shift.
It was small wonder that Plumer’s chief of staff had announced that although they might not change history, they would certainly change geography. These tunnellers worked three shifts in two days and then had a day off. After fifteen days they were withdrawn ‘for a bath and delousing operations, the latter being only partially successful’.175
Although sappers were the stars of mining, as usual the infantry provided the scene shifters, and generally complained about it. Lieutenant Ernest Parker remembered that:
Towards evening we daily journeyed to the front line and there, in shifts of eight hours, worked under the orders of a company of New Zealand sappers who were tunnelling under the German trenches. At the top of the sap, we hauled a continuous stream of chalk-filled bags, carrying them outside and unloading the chalk some distance from the sap-head. By special favour, I was sometimes allowed to crawl down the deep shaft, where I could cautiously watch the New Zealanders working at the rock face. Now and then we listened in, and heard the enemy working in their counter saps.176
But most infantrymen were soon convinced that they would rather be in a trench than down a mine. One of Bernard Adams’s comrades told him what it was like down there.
First of all you go down three or four ladders; it’s awfully tricky work at the sort of halt on the way down, because there’s a little platform, and very often the ladder goes down a different side of the shaft after one of these halts … It’s a terrible long way down, and of course you go alone … I didn’t go far up the gallery where they were working because you can’t easily pass along, but the RE officer took me along a gallery that is not being worked, and there, all alone, at the end of it was a man sitting. He was simply sitting, listening. Then I listened through his stethoscope thing … and I could hear the Boche working as plainly as anything … as we went away and left him, he looked round at us with staring eyes just like a hunted animal. To sit there for hours on end, listening. Of course, while you hear them working, it’s all right, they won’t blow. But if you don’t hear them! God, I wouldn’t like to be an RE. It’s an awful game.
‘We always laugh at these REs for looking like navvies, and for going about without gas-helmets or rifles,’ reflected Adams. ‘But really they are wonderful men. It’s awful being liable to be buried alive at any moment.’177
Galleries ran into wide chambers that were filled (armed was the technical phrase) with explosive, usually ammonal, contained either in waterproof bags or tins, tamped firmly by sandbags to prevent too much of the blast from blowing back along the line of least resistance down the tunnel. The explosives were initiated by a pattern of electric detonators, stretching round the chamber like the nerves of a hand, and joined to a main cable which ran down the tunnel to a firing-point in a trench, where an engineer officer would push the handle of an electric exploder to fire the mine. Sometimes there was a firing dugout further back, with a small generator providing electricity, connected to the mine by a simple throw-over switch. Usually the officers firing mines expressed relief and satisfaction that the mine had exploded as planned. But one, a son of the manse, knelt and doffed his steel helmet before he thrust down the plunger, begging God’s mercy for the men he was about to kill.
Spectators found mine explosions perhaps the most unnatural of the bizarre spectacles furnished by the front line. Bernard Adams was enjoying a mug of tea in a front line trench when:
There was a faint ‘Bomp’ from goodness knows where. And a horrid shudder. The earth shook and staggered and I set my legs apart to keep my balance. It felt as if the whole ground were going to be tilted up. The tea splashed over the fire-step as I hastily put it down. Then I looked up. There was nothing. What had happened? Was it a camouflet [small mine] after all? Then, over the sandbags, appeared a great green meadow, slowly, taking its time, not hurrying, a smooth curved dome of grass, heaving up, up, up like a rising cake; then, like a cake, it cracked, cracked visibly with bursting brown seams; still the dome rose, towering ten, twenty feet up
‘Magnificent,’ I said to Scott.
‘Wonderful,’ he answered.
‘The mud’s all in your tea, sir,’ said Davies.
‘Dr-r-r-r-r-r’ rattled the Lewis guns. The Lewis gunners with me had been amazed rather than thrilled by the awful spectacle, but were now recovering from the shock and emptying two or three drums into the twilight void. I was peering over a vast chasm where two minutes ago had been a smooth meadow full of buttercups and toadstools.178
Gas and cave-ins were not the only dangers faced by miners. Although the Germans had lost their ascendancy by 1916, they remained capable of exploding mines of their own. As they worked, miners of both sides paused to listen, and often drove small galleries, designed to house camouflets, towards the enemy’s work, hoping to blow in his tunnel before his mine could be armed, tamped and fired. F. P. Roe thought that:
The last thing any infantry soldier wanted to be in was a front-line trench with our own tunnelling going on underneath us and this made us extremely apprehensive of the possibility of being blown to bits when the mine was exploded; we were scared stiff that the Germans were also busily engaged in the same important business, and that it might at any time entirely without warning blow the trench and us in it sky-high. We were sure that it was a completely devilish business.179
If British miners failed to intercept an enemy mine, the consequences for the infantry above could be dire. Writing from Voorme-zeele in the Ypres salient, Frank Hawkings told of the explosion of a British mine, followed shortly by that of a German.
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