I remind you that landscape is history, and as proof I offer the green “ponder lands” 30 miles south of the North Sea coast, and 10 miles north of Lilli, France. Politically this is Belgium, but morally it is a lonely landscape, described by a 21st century writer as “...bleakness...dismal (where) winds howl across flat fields and whip through villages, wrapping around church steeples and belfries” To the English of a certain generation this will always be “Wipers”, a poor pronunciation of the French “Ypres” (Ipres). Here over four horrible years in the second decade of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of mostly young men from Germany and the British Empire endured the unendurable, day after miserable day engaged in static trench warfare. So many are buried here in marked and unmarked graves that their bones make up no small portion of the soil. And many were even buried alive.
A trench in the Great War meant survival, from artillery shells and machine gun fire. But here in the “le plat plays”, the 'flat country' in the local Flemish dialect, any digging or shelling uncovered a clinging, grasping yellowish brown clay, perpetually dripping with water. It coated everything it touched. It added pounds to boots, and subtracted warmth from soaked wool uniforms.
At the slightest shower, trenches and “dugouts” flooded. Those who existed here fought rats grown fat on the corpses that littered no-man's-land between the trenches, suffered from fungus inspired trench foot, trench mouth, and dysentery, cholera and typhus. The Germans had it marginally better, because they were ensconced on the 'high ground' of the Messines-Ypress Ridge, all of thirty feet above the worst of it. Unable to dig too deep, the Germans built concrete pill boxes above the ground. The British soldiers, without benefit of such amenities, endured not only the constant damp and the clay, but having German snipers and artillery observers overlooking their every move.
So it was the British who were were forced to explore the terrain below ground. Test drills discovered the yellow clay was waterlogged because about 70 feet further down was an impervious layer of hard brown clay, which trapped the ground water above it. But 30 dry feet below that was a soft blue clay, perfect for tunneling. Early in 1915 recruiters went out to the mining districts of Britain, Canada and Australia, looking for volunteers.
One company of 600 miners signed up on a Thursday morning in Yorkshire, and was doing preliminary digging the following Wednesday afternoon in Flanders. In all, 33 companies were formed from three continents, but the procedures were the same at all 21 tunnels begun west and south of the Messines ridge. First, about a quarter- mile behind the front, a large steel conduit (above) was driven straight down for fifty feet. Using this as a shield against the oozing yellow muck, the miners then dug straight down to the blue clay. A gallery was then cleared at the bottom of the shaft and a winch lift installed to the surface. Then, divided into four to eight man teams, each company of royal engineers would begin to tunnel toward the German trenches.
The “Kicker” would lay on his back, supported at an angle by a heavy board. Using his feet and legs, he would thrust a spade into the clay, slicing away about 9 inches with each push. A “Bagger” would shove the clumps into burlap sacks and pile them atop a rubber wheeled trolley, which a pair of “Tammers” would push down rails toward the entrance Seventy bags were required for every foot of tunnel dug. At the gallery the bags would be winched to the surface, where every night regular army work teams removed the clay for careful disposal. German aircraft kept watch for dry clay on the surface, as this was proof of tunneling.
The trolley returned with pre-cut wooden bracing in 9 inch sections. To avoid the sounds hammering, the bracing was designed to be held in place by the tendency of the blue clay to swell on exposure to the air. Each crew worked a 6 to 12 hour shift at the face, with 8 hours off. The crews then rotated to operating and repairing the air and water pumps and the winches. Bunk rooms were carved off the tunnel shafts. Underground the miners were reasonably safe from all but the heaviest German shells, but the tension and claustrophobia insured that every four days the entire company had to be rotated behind the lines, one hour of Rest and Recovery for every sixteen hours spent in the tunnels.
The tunnels were dark, cold and often flooded with ice cold water. Over one six week period one mining company had 12 men killed by methane and carbon dioxide gas, with 28 sent to hospital and another 60 treated in the unit. Besides the constant threat of cave-ins, the exhausted men suffered all of the usual infections of trench warfare plus those caused by breathing stale air. A surface soldier, artilleryman Charles Brett, with the 47th London Division, observed that “When the tunnellers emerged above ground they could easily be distinguished by their poor pallid faces. We who lived, or died,...daily subject to bombing, shelling or sniping, pitied them from the bottom of our hearts”
One tunnel was abandoned after it collapsed under a German counter-mine, and it was decided three others would not be used because of various problems. But after two years of digging, by May of 1917, over a million pounds of high explosives were packed into 17 tunnels – – about 40,000 pounds in each – directly under the German trenches atop the Messenes Ridge. .
The pre-assault bombardment began on Tuesday, May 8th and continued for two weeks. On Wednesday, May 23, it became heavier, the artillery increased to 2,300 guns So heavy was the bombardment - 3.5 million shells a week - that German front line troops were rotated back for relief every other day. Almost 90% of the German artillery behind the Messnes Ridge was destroyed under this bombardment. The night before the grand assault, commanding British General Plummer told his staff, “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”
At 2:50 in the morning, Thursday June 7th the British artillery barrage suddenly ceased. The silence that crashed over the trenches was deafening. German infantry raced to their weapons in the trenches. They were in luck, as at this precise moment, the positions were being relieved, and the trenches were filled with twice as many defenders as usual. At 3:00 A.M. a white star shell exploded above the German positions, illuminating the stark landscape. And then at 3:10 A.M., in the words of one tunneler, “All hell broke loose”.
The blasts were clearly heard a hundred miles away in London. The tunneler continued, “In the pale light it appeared as if the whole enemy line had begun to dance, then, one after another, huge tongues of flame shot hundreds of feet into the air, followed by dense columns of smoke, which flattened out at the top like gigantic mushrooms...The whole scene was majestic in its awfulness.” And it all happened over a period of just 30 seconds.
The largest mine, labeled as “Spanbroekmolen” and planted 88 feet below ground level, left a crater 40 feet deep and 280 feet in diameter. Before the eyes of Second Lieutenant J.W. Naylor, “The earth seemed to tear apart...The whole ground went up and came down again. It was like a huge mushroom.” And Private John Rea Laister wrote after the war, “Arms, legs, trees, bricks coming down all over the place....I thought, 'I wonder how many poor buggers, have gone up with that lot'.”
The artillery began an immediate walking barrage, with the advancing infantry right behind. By 10:00 that morning all the first day's objectives had been achieved. And for the first (and only) time in World War One, the defense suffered more causalities than the attackers. British casualties were 24,564, killed, wounded and missing.
They captured 7,354 German soldiers, with perhaps another 4-5,000 Germans missing and presumed dead in the blasts, and 23,000 wounded. The British front line advanced three miles and dug into their new positions, in front of yet another line of German trenches, a line which would not be breached until late in 1918. On the Western front in World War One, this “Bite and Hold” at Messenes Ridge was considered a major success.
For all the effort and sacrifice, there were no more large scale “Mining Campaigns” in World War One. No where else did the combination of soil and static positions combine to make it a viable option. And with time, the effort and sacrifice was largely forgotten – at least until Friday, June 17, 1955, when a bolt of lightening struck a telephone pole placed directly above one of the three unused and abandoned mines, setting it off. Luckily, the only causality was a single cow.
That blast revived interest in the mining operations, and the last unexploded mine was finally located midway though the first decade of the 21st century, beneath a placid farm with the name of La Basee Cour. Sixty year old farmer Roger Mahieu, insists he is not worried about the 22 tons of explosives buried 80 feet under his house. “It's been there all that time, why should it decide to blow up now?”
Except, the same thing was said about the outbreak of World War One.
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