Bagley William Hull 1883 – 1917


157781 Sapper W.H. Bagley, 177th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers was killed in action 4 July 1917, aged about 34.[1]  He is buried at New Irish Farm Cemetery, near Ypres, Belgium[2] and commemorated on the St. Helen’s Colliery Memorial Cottages and the Roll of Honour, West Auckland Memorial Hall, County Durham.

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, all but Thomas were born at Willington:

  • John born c.1878
  • 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

In 1901, the family lived at the Nursery, West Auckland and it is assumed that Sylvester and oldest son John, who was 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. [3]  In 1910, William married Jessie Longstaff. [4] By 1911, William and Jessie lived at 6 Maude Terrace, St. Helen’s Auckland with their son Sylvester (born 26 August 1918).[5]  William worked as a coal miner (hewer). [6]  The family tree indicates that Jessie gave birth to twins, Alice and Mary in 1913 but they both died that year.  Jessie died 17 December 1915.  Her mother Alice Longstaff became the guardian of son Sylvester. [7]

William’s younger brother, serving as 16381 Private Robert Bagley, 6th Battalion, Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own (Yorkshire Regiment) was killed in action whilst serving in Gallipoli, 7 August 1915, aged about 29. [8]

Military Details

The service record of Sapper W.H. Bagley has not been researched. He joined the 177th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers and was given the service number 157781.  Sapper W.H. Bagley did not enter France until after 31 December 1915 since he was not awarded the 1914-15 Star.[9]

Being a miner, he volunteered or was recruited specifically to work on the preparation of tunnels and other underground work.  An incentive was the rate of pay.  Face-men received 6 shillings a day, a mate 2 shilling and tuppence.  Both rates were significantly higher than an average infantryman whose daily pay was 1 shilling and threepence. A tour of duty in the tunnels was normally 4 days in and 4 days out but as time went by, due to the increasing number of casualties and the demands of the task in hand, tours were increased to 6 in and 2 out.  The men were also given more days leave than their infantry colleagues for example the aim for officers was a fortnight every 3 months.

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.[10] The 177th Tunnelling Company, formed in June 1915, under the command of Captain P.W. Bliss, R.E.[11]  Within 2 weeks, work had commenced sinking 2 shafts called Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.[12]   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 such as Hooge, Wytschaete, Mount Sorrel, Messines and Railway Wood. [13]  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 [14] and moved to the Railway Wood area where it remained for 2 years. [15]

By July 1916, there were a total of 32 tunnelling companies operating along the British Front:

  • 25 British
  • 3 Australian
  • 3 Canadian
  • 1 New Zealand

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” who worked permanently alongside the trained sappers as “beasts of burden”. [16]

The greatest Allied success in mine warfare of the Great War was witnessed at the Battle of Messines which took place between 7 and 14 June 1917 (see below).  However, the 177th Tunnelling Company was not involved in preparing mines for this offensive.  It was posted to the north of Messines in the vicinity of Railway Wood, Hooge and Wieltje continuing its work against German tunnellers.  Sapper W.H. Bagley was killed in action 4 July 1917, about 4 weeks after the Messines mines were detonated.

An indication of the tunnelling company’s work is given below, and it is taken from 177th Company, RE War Diary.  The Weekly Mine Report for 6 June 1917 is the most detailed account of mining activity preceding Sapper W.H Bagley’s death.  It coincides with the death of another local man Sapper P. Creegan from Witton Park.  It is typical of the work then undertaken in the Railway Wood sector – expanding, repairing dugouts, extending galleries and tunnels, blowing mines and repairing damage from enemy activity.  This Weekly Mine Report records that work was carried on at a number of locations including: [17]

  • Cambridge Road where steps from a dugout to the surface were completed,
  • Gladys, Murial and Maude at the Battalion HQ where dugout entrances and galleries were completed,
  • Archie at Brigade HQ where work on galleries and dugouts were completed,
  • Horace at a Dressing Station where work on galleries and dugouts took place,
  • Mud Lane, an exit was completed,
  • At positions H20, 6YA and 6ZB, a mine was blown on the 29 May at Momber Crater to which the Germans responded with 2 “blows” – a camouflet, 3 June at 3.30am and a crater, 4 June at 4am,
  • Punch and Judy in Beek Trench where work associated with a shaft continued,
  • Toby, at a specific map reference, providing a step down to Cambridge Trench.

Accompanying notes in the war diary state:

“Work hindered greatly by enemy artillery activity (trench mortars) preventing disposal of XXX & interfering with parties getting up materials by night.  Considerable repairs to exits & c through above has been necessary.” [18]

The war diary summary for June refers to extreme artillery activity and that spoil could not be disposed of.[19] There is a report of the mine which exploded on 3 June which states that the underground damage was 59 ft. of 6YA and described as slight.[20] A report detailing the casualties for the month of June 1917 records:

  • Royal Engineers – 4 men killed and 23 wounded
  • The infantry working parties – 1 man killed and 23 wounded

The War Diary for July does not include a daily log of activity but includes 10 notes:

  1. The HQ of the company did not move.
  2. Major M.H. Wilkinson MC RE Officer in Command of the Company was killed in action 31 July 1917.
  3. Captain B.L. Sawers MC RE took over temporary command of the Company on the same day
  4. Two sheets are attached showing casualties
  5. Listening and repairs of galleries was carried out at Railway Wood, sheet 28. I.11.b. Particularly in 6.G. gallery which was badly crumped with an armoured piercing shell on 22 July and had to be repaired in order to get electric cables through again.
  6. Battalion HQs at Beek Trench sheet 28.I.11.C.9.8 were completed.
  7. Accommodation for men at Railway Cutting I.16.a.50.85 was completed on 2 July 1917.
  8. HQs at Birr Cross Roads I.11.b.28.84 with 40’ cover was completed during the month
  9. Dugout accommodation for men with 25’ cover at Ritz Trench I.17.c.5.8. was completed.
  10. Work was delayed throughout the month, at times by shortage of timber and always by hostile shelling. Barrages at night prevented carrying parties from getting up material and working parties from disposing of bags.  The proportion of gas shells sent over was also high.

At the end of the month, the strength of the company was 24 Officers and 321 Other Ranks and attached infantry was 3 Officers and 242 Other Ranks.  The casualty sheets (mentioned above) included details for Royal Engineers and Infantry men.  There were no casualties amongst the officers, RE or infantry.  Amongst the RE Other Ranks, 3 had been killed and 6 wounded.  Amongst the infantrymen, 7 had been killed and 21 wounded.  For the date of 4 July 1917, the date when Sapper W.H. Bagley was reportedly killed in action, there is no entry relating to this.  Details included 1 other rank admitted to hospital and 1 was reported missing.

17 October 1917: The War Office Daily List reported that 157781 Sapper W. Bagley was “missing”.[21]  Elsewhere it is recorded that Sapper W.H. Bagley was, “presumed dead” on or since 4 July 1917.[22] He was afforded a battlefield burial and later, it was exhumed and reburied.  This indicates that his body was found and identified.  It is possible that he was not on duty at the time and could have been killed as a result of the usual violence of warfare – shelling or sniper fire.

Three other local men, serving with 177th Tunnelling Company, died at other times were:

  • 102449 Sapper George A. Chatt, born at Barnard Castle and lived at Crook, was killed in action 14 December 1915 and is commemorated by the memorial at RE Grave Railway Wood Cemetery on Bellwaerde Ridge, Zillebeke, Belgium. It commemorates 8 Royal Engineers of the 177th Tunnelling Company and 4 attached infantrymen who were killed in action underground during the defence of Ypres between November 1915 and August 1917.  Their bodies were left in situ beneath the hill on which stands the memorial.[23]
  • 102256 Sapper John T. Milburn, born at Evenwood and lived at Shildon prior to the war with his wife and 6 children, died 31 March 1916 and is buried at Etaples Military Cemetery, France and is commemorated on the Shildon war memorial.[24]
  • 102450 Sapper Patrick Creegan, 177th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers was killed in action 3 June 1917, aged 30. He is buried at Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium[25] and is commemorated on the Witton Park war memorials

Medals and Awards

Sapper William H. Bagley was awarded the British War and Victory medals.  His medals were issued to Mrs. L. Longstaff, 10 Bridge Street, Crook, County Durham.  [26]


157781 Sapper W.H. Bagley, 177th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers is buried at grave reference XXVII.D.16 New Irish Farm Cemetery near Ypres.  There are 1449 burials at this cemetery.  It appears that his body was an isolated burial (map reference 28.C.22.d.9.1.) and after the war when concentration of battlefield graves took place, his body was reburied at New Irish Farm.  He was identified by letters.[27]


Effects and Pension

Mrs Alice Longstaff, 3 Front Street, St Helens was named as he guardian for Sylvester Alexander Bagley, William’s son, and received his pension and effects.[28]  Jessie, William’s wife had died in 1915.[29]


The St. Helen’s Colliery Memorial Cottages – 4 cottages built near the Colliery Institute, St. Helen’s Auckland constitute the local war memorial.  2 were erected (at a cost of £4,200) by Messrs. Pease & Partners, owners of the colliery and 2 by subscriptions of the men employed there.  The formal opening took place Saturday 12 November 1921[30]

West Auckland Memorial Hall – the hall was formally opened 7 February 1925 by Mrs. Malcolm Smith.  The cost was £2,750 raised by the Miners’ Welfare Committee and the site was given by Messrs. Bolckow Vaughan.  The hall was commissioned by the War Memorial Committee.  The hall contains a Roll of Honour with 53 names of the fallen, originally located in the Methodist Church and transferred in the 1980’s. [31]

The Battle of Messines 7 – 14 June 1917

The Battle of Messines took place between 7 and 14 June 1917 and the main feature was the success of mine warfare.

“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.” [32]


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) & Soldiers Died in the Great War (SDGW)

[2] Note: Ypres in French, Ieper in Flemish and “Wypers” to the British Soldiers, “Tommies”

[3] 1901 census

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

[5] Dependant’s Pension card index

[6] 1911 census

[7] Family Tree and Dependant’s Pension card index

[8] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[9] Medal Roll card index


[11] “Tunnellers: the story of the Tunnelling Companies, Royal Engineers, during the World War” Capt. W. Grant Grieve & Bernard Newman 1936 p.61

[12] Grant Grieve & Bernard Newman p.61


[14] Grant Grieve & Bernard Newman p.216

[15] Grant Grieve & Bernard Newman p.248


[17] Army Form W.3404

[18] Note:  without specific knowledge of the terminology of the day, some words are unusual – the unknown word I marked XXX refers to spoil and c may be shorthand for “carrying”.

[19] Army Form C.2118

[20] Mine Explosion Report (Enemy) dated 4 June 1917 Sapper P. Creegan, 2 other RE sappers were killed, 3 RE men and 6 infantrymen were wounded in this explosion.

[21] Forces War Records War Office Daily List No.5392 NLS1917_WList12

[22] Dependant’s Pension card index & UK Army Register of Soldiers’ Effects 1901-1929 Record No. 732013

[23] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

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

[25] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[26] Medal Roll card index

[27] CWGC Burial Return, Concentration of Graves (Exhumation and Reburials)

[28] UK Army Register of Soldiers’ Effects 1901-1929 Record No. 732013

[29] Dependant’s Pension card index

[30] Darlington & Stockton Times (North) 19 November 1921 and




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