Bagley WH


157781 Sapper W.H. Bagley, 177th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers died 4 July 1917. [1]  He was about 24 years old, the son of Sylvester and Elizabeth Bagley.  He is buried at New Irish Farm Cemetery, near Ieper, Belgium and commemorated on the St. Helen’s Colliery Memorial Cottages, West Auckland War Memorial and the Roll of Honour, West Auckland Memorial Hall, Darlington Road, West Auckland.

William’s younger brother 16381 Private Robert Bagley, 6th Battalion, Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own (Yorkshire Regiment) was also killed in action whilst serving in Gallipoli, 7 August 1915. [6]

Family Details

William Hull Bagley was born c.1883 at Willington, Co. Durham, the son of Sylvester and Elizabeth Bagley.  Sylvester worked as a miller in a flour mill.  There were at least 7 children:

  • John born c.1878 at Willington
  • Margaret born c.1880
  • William Hull born c.1883
  • Robert born c.1886
  • Frederick born c.1889
  • Sylvester born c.1892
  • Thomas born c.1894 at West Auckland

All children other than Thomas were born at Willington.  In 1901, the family lived at the Nursery, West Auckland and it is assumed that Sylvester and oldest son John (who is recorded as a “waggoner for miller”) were employed by the company that operated the flour mill located near the Nursery at Mill Bank, West Auckland. [2]  In 1910 William married Jessie Longstaff. [3] By 1911, William and Jessie lived at 6 Maude Terrace, St. Helen’s Auckland with their 7 month old child Sylvester.  William worked as a coal miner (hewer). [4]  The family tree indicates that Jessie gave birth to twins, Alice and Mary in 1913 but they both died that year.  Jessie died in 1915. [5]

Service Record

The service record of Sapper W.H. Bagley and the War Diary of the 177th Company, Royal Engineers has not been researched.

The first 9 Royal Engineer Tunnelling Companies, numbers 170 to 178, were commanded by a regular RE officer.  They comprised 5 officers and 269 sappers, aided by temporarily attached infantrymen as required which almost doubled the number.[7] By mid 1916, the British Army had about 25,000 trained tunnellers, mostly volunteers taken from coal mining communities and almost twice that number of “attached infantry” worked permanently alongside the trained sappers as “beasts of burden”. [8]

The 177th Tunnelling Company was formed in June 1915 under the command of Captain P.W. Bliss, R.E. and 2 weeks later it had commenced sinking 2 shafts called Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle (near Terdegham?) [9]   From its formation in June 1915 to July 1917, the 177th Tunnelling Company was part of the British Second Army and its HQ was at various locations – Hooge, Wytschaete, Mount Sorrel, Messines and Railway Wood. [10]  The 177th Company was custodians of a front of nearly 3000 yards extending from Bois Carre in the south to Kruisstraat Cabaret in the north, with the village of Wytschaete in the centre.  In November 1915, the Company was relieved by the 250th Tunnelling Company [11] and moved to the Railway Wood area where it remained for 2 years. [12]

The Battle of Messines took place between 7 and 14 June 1917 and the main feature was the success of mine warfare.  The 177th Tunnelling Company was heavily involved in the action.

“The culmination of mine warfare on the Western Front was the Second Army attack on the Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917.  In conjunction with the most powerfully concentrated artillery barrage to that date, 19 deep mines with a total of 937,450 lb of explosive were fired along the 10 km front at zero hour, all within 30 seconds of each other.  The explosions were clearly heard in London and registered on a seismograph in Switzerland.  The German defence was totally shattered with several thousand German troops obliterated by the explosions.  One of the most strongly fortified positions on the Western Front was taken within an hour or so with few casualties to the attacking Divisions. 

The concept of a deep mining attack against the Messines Ridge was first proposed in early 1915 by Major Norton Griffiths.  The first of the tunnels was initiated in July 1915.  In January 1916 General Sir Herbert Plumer (Daddy Plumer) approved an all-out effort.  At peak 9 Tunnelling Companies were employed on the preparations, including all three Canadian Companies.  Many of the mines were in position by mid 1916 and had to be preserved and defended for a year or more.

25 mines totalling 1,149,450 lb (522,500 kg) were laid.   One was lost to German counter mining, one abandoned due to tunnel collapse, and four at the southern end of the Ridge (Birdcage Sector) not employed for tactical reasons.  19 totalling 937,450 lb (426,110 kg) were fired.  The largest single charge was the St Eloi mine at 96,500 lb (43,600 kg). One of the four Birdcage mines exploded in a thunderstorm in July 1955.  Five fully charged mines containing 166,000 lb (75,500 kg) remain today.

Mining after Messines

By mid 1917 all belligerents were moving away from linear defence to ‘flexible defence in depth’.  Messines hastened the process, and thereafter opportunities for mining attack virtually ceased.  The mining Companies were switched onto construction of defences, dugouts, subways and other Engineer duties.  In Mar to May 1918 many Companies distinguished themselves as infantry, helping stem the German attacks.  After that, in the great advances of the last 100 days, they were employed on lifting booby traps, and road and bridge construction.” [13]

3 weeks after the Messines offensive Sapper W.H. Bagley was killed in action 4 July 1917. [14]

He was awarded the British War and Victory medals.  This infers that he did not enter France until after 31 December 1915.  His medals were issued to Mrs. L. Longstaff, 10 Bridge Street, Crook, County Durham.  [15]  It is assumed that she was his mother-in-law.

Another local man to serve with the 177th Tunnelling Company was 102256 Sapper J.T. Milburn, born at Evenwood and lived at Shildon prior to the war with his wife and 6 children.  He died 31 March 1916 and is buried at Etaples Military Cemetery, France.  [16]

The memorial at RE Grave Railway Wood Cemetery on Bellwaerde Ridge, Zillebeke, Belgium commemorates 8 Royal Engineers of the 177th Tunnelling Company and 4 attached infantrymen who were killed in action underground during the defence of Ieper (Ypres) between November 1915 and August 1917.  Their bodies were left in situ beneath the hill on which stands the memorial.  One of those commemorated is 102449 Sapper G.A. Chatt, born at Barnard Castle and lived at Crook with his wife Annie. [17]


157781 Sapper W.H. Bagley, 177th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers is buried at grave reference XXVII.D.16 New Irish Farm Cemetery near Ieper (Ypres).  There are 1449 burials at this cemetery.


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] 1901 census

[3] England & Wales Marriage Register Jan, Feb & March 1910 Auckland Vol.6a p.295 and www.ancestry family tree

[4] 1911 census

[5] Family Tree

[6] Commonwealth War Graves Commission



[9] “Tunnellers: the story of the Tunnelling Companies, Royal Engineers, during the World War” Capt. W. Grant Grieve & Bernard Newman 1936 p61


[11] See 6 p.216

[12] See 6 p.248


[14] Soldiers Died in the Great War

[15] Medal Roll card index

[16] Commonwealth War Graves Commission and “Evenwood Remembers” Kevin Richardson 2010 p.59

[17] Commonwealth War Graves Commission


BAGLEY W.H. Headstone


The Tunneller's Memorial

The Tunneller’s Memorial

Plugstreet Tunnellers'

Plugstreet Tunnellers’

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