NELSON G.W.

GEORGE WILLIAM NELSON (1890-1918)

175834 Sapper George William Nelson, 171st Company, Royal Engineers was killed in action 29 April 1918 and is buried at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No.3, Belgium.[1]  He was 27 years old and is commemorated on the West Auckland War Memorial and the Roll of Honour, West Auckland Memorial Hall.

Family Details

George William was born 1890 [2] at West Auckland, the son of William and Elizabeth Nelson.  There were at least 3 children, all born at West Auckland:

  • Joseph bc.1879
  • Isa bc.1882
  • George born 1890

In 1881, the family lived at Town End Yard, West Auckland and 48 year old William was employed as a coal miner.[3]  In 1901, the family still lived at Town End Yard and William worked as coal miner (waggonwayman).  The oldest son Joseph, aged 22 was a coal miner (hewer). [4]  By 1911, the family lived at Ayers Yard and William, recorded as being 75 years old worked as a wagonwayman and his youngest son, 20 year old George was employed as a miner (putter).[5]

Service Details

G.W. Nelson enlisted at Bishop Auckland into the Durham Light Infantry being given the regimental number 37176 and at some time later was transferred to the Royal Engineers, serving with 171st Tunnelling Company.[6]  He did not enter France until after 31 December 1915 since he was not awarded the 1914-15 Star.[7]  It is presumed that he was required for work during 1916, 1917 and early 1918 before being killed in action 29 April 1918.

The formation of the new Royal Engineers’ Tunnelling Companies began during the winter of 1914-1915 and was treated as an urgent priority by the War Office.  Miners declared surplus to the war effort at home were encouraged to join up. Once at the front, after a very short period of military training the new companies were rushed to the areas where their expertise was most needed.  By July 1916, there were a total of 32 tunnelling companies, 25 British, 3 Australian, 3 Canadian and 1 New Zealand operating along the British Front.  A census taken in June 1916 recorded that there were between 18,000 and 24,000 men continuously employed underground. [8]  When at full strength, a company could field 500-600 miners and was often reinforced by fatigue parties drawn from infantry battalions in reserve.  Company numbers could get into 4 figures.[9]  On joining up tunnellers were initially assessed at Chatham, into 3 classes:

  • those who held positions of foremen in civilian life (say a deputy at the pit) would be recruited as an NCO known as a “ganger”
  • those with experience were “face-men” ie clay-kickers (hewers in coal mining terms) and timbering
  • others with less experience, “mates” could be timbermen, baggers or runners-out responsible for getting the spoil out of the tunnels.

In practice, the face-men and their mates all worked taking turns to extract the clay/chalk.  Regular army Royal Engineers, CSMs and CQMSs would be drawn into the company.  Officer Commanding (OC) would be a RE Major or Captain with 4 section officers who would be professional engineers holding the temporary rank of subaltern.  Each officer had a “batman” (servant).

An incentive was the rate of pay which was an excellent wage for a working man at the time.  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. [10]  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. [11]

The 171st Tunnelling Company (171TC)[12] initially was comprised of a small number of specially enlisted miners with troops selected from the Monmouthshire Siege Company RE and their first task was allocated to them in March 1915 in the Hill 60/Bluff areas at Ypres. [13]  171 TC consisted of clay kickers, Durham and Welsh miners.[14]  The Durham men had a good reputation:

“I soon formed the opinion that in a difficult situation underground one Geordie from Durham was worth two of any other kind.  The Durham miner had had a hard upbringing in narrow wet seams.”

Lieutenant B. Frayling 171TC RE [15]

The distinction of the first company to blow a mine under the enemy trenches belongs to the 171 TC – 4 March 1915 at 7.40pm near Ypres. [16] The Germans held Hill 60 from December 1915 to April 1915 when it was captured briefly following the detonation of 5 mines under German lines.  The early underground war here involved both the 171 and 172 TC.

In July 1915, 171 TC moved to Ploegsteert and commenced mining near St. Ives at the southern end of the Messines Ridge.  The 4 deep mines dug here by the 171, 175, 250, 1st & 3rd Canadian and 1st Australian TC formed part of the prelude to the Battle of Messines, 7 – 14 June 1917.

In December 1915, 171 TC began work on the deep mine at Trench 127 at St. Yves which was ready by April 1916.  In February, 171 TC began work on the deep mine at Trench 122 at St. Yves.  The major task for 171 TC was associated with the attack at Messines.

The service records of Sapper G.W. Nelson have not been researched but it is probable that he was involved in the following schemes.  In April 1916, 171 TC moved to the Spanbroekmolen/Douvre area and took over work from the 3rd Canadian TC extending the tunnel beneath the German lines by 523m (1717ft.) in 7 months encountering German counter mining activity and the influx of gas but eventually the mine was ready for the appointed time of detonation, 03.10, 7 June 1917.  171 TC also took over work on the mines at Kruisstraat.  Again, German counter mining activity necessitated some repair to one of the chambers but by 9 May 1917, 4 mines were ready.

At the end of January 1917, 171 TC began work on the deep mine at Ontario Farm commenced from Boyle’s Farm.  Despite obstacles such as flooding, the mine was ready by the end of May.[17]

All was ready for the big day.  The tunnelling commanders allowed themselves a little celebration:

“We drank champagne in the chambers under the German line – in the mine chambers just before we closed them up.”

Captain H.M. Hudspeth 171 TC RE [18]

The attack had been planned to coincide with daybreak so that attacking troops would not be moving forward in darkness.  Over 100 infantry battalions from 10 divisions were waiting to move forward. [19]

“At about 03-9.30 Peckham was fired, 20 seconds later Spanbroekmolen and 2 seconds later Kruistraat.  We only saw these 5 mines, fumes screening the rest.”

Major R.S.G. Stokes [20]

“I had the very good fortune to see the whole of the mines go up that night on the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge…The first thing we knew was a terrific tremor of the ground.  It was quite fantastic…It [Spandroekmolen] was a sheet of flame that tongued in the end.  It went up as high as St. Paul’s….It was white incandescent light…The biggest bit of a German I found afterwards was one foot in a boot.”

Lieutenant B. Frayling 171 TC RE [21]

Another eye witness account:

“I’d never seen anything like it.  Arms, legs, trees, bricks coming down all over the place.  I don’t remember the noise from it…But there was this damn great flame – white it was…I can’t really describe it…it was like a mountain standing in the sky…I thought, “I wonder how many poor buggers have gone up with that lot.”

Private J.R. Laister attached to 171 TC RE [22]

The tunnellers had done their job well and Messines was regarded as a success even though early gains were not capitalised upon and later German counter attacks regained much lost ground.

The Battle of Passchendaele followed 31 July – 10 November 1917 and having retaken the Passchendaele Ridge, the British were left with little natural shelter since the artillery from both sides had flattened the landscape.  In January 1918, Allied High Command moved 25,000 specialist tunnellers and 50,000 attached infantry to the Ypres Salient.  171 TC was moved northwards.  200 independent and connected structures were constructed at depths of 30m (98ft.) which could accommodate 50 to 2,000 men (the largest being at Wieltje and Hill 63).  More people lived underground in March 1918 in the Ypres area than reside in the town today.

In March 1918, 171 TC constructed a deep dugout in the centre of Zonnebeke located directly beneath the ruined church.  Knowledge of this dugout was lost until an archaeological excavation of the Augustine Abbey took place in the grounds of the church in recent times.

171 TC was responsible for building the Vampire Dugout located near Polygon Wood, which was the brigade HQ for up to 50 men and 1 senior commanding officer, so named as it housed supply-soldiers whose mission was to re-supply troops after dark.  It became operational from early April 1918 but after only a few weeks the dugout was lost when the Germans swept through the area during the Battle of the Lys, 9 – 29 April.  171 TC and several others were forced to move their camps from Boeschele and put on duties digging and wiring trenches over long distances from Reningeist to near St. Omer. [23] As the Germans advanced some RE men manned the trenches coming under machine gun and light trench mortar fire.[24]  A description of the withdrawal and German advance is given below:

“All day long woebegone crowds of civilian refugees streamed down the roads leading away from these towns [Bailleul, Merris, Merville] fleeing as from a noisome pestilence, a motley of old and young, middle aged men being conspicuous by their absence.  All, even the small children carried some treasured possession.  Rickety wagons, piled high with domestic belongings hastily salved, upon which sometimes could be seen perched precariously the remnants of a passing generation, drawn by oddly assorted teams pf domestic animals – even dogs were drawn into service- attached by improvised harness to strange vehicles, handcarts and wheelbarrows, jostled one another in their anxiety to escape.  Pedestrians filled any road space available in the traffic jam and overflowed into the fields at the roadside.  Occasionally shells from long range guns fell near, adding greatly to the distress of the already harassed fugitives, while aeroplanes swooped low overhead.  It was indeed a pathetic spectacle.  Yet withal the fugitives bore their persecution with commendable fortitude.  As the crowd surged along one sometimes recognised buxom wenches who, but a short while previously, had dispensed copious libations to all and sundry at the “Au Pot au Lait” or “A Bon Coin” or such local hostelry.” [25]

During this mayhem, possibly during a rear-guard engagement with the enemy described above, Sapper G.W. Nelson and 3 other ranks serving with 171 TC were killed in action 29 April 1918.  This date signified the commencement of the Battle of Scherpenberg, the last phase of the Battle of the Lys.  The others killed in action were:[26]

  • 359795 Sapper R.W. Taylor (formerly 28338 DLI) from Dipton, County Durham
  • 207821 Sapper W.F. Schakow (formerly 5393 R.M.L.I.) from South Shields
  • 112770 Sapper J. Moore from Ripley, Derbyshire

They are buried next to each other in Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No.3. [27]

Sapper G.W. Nelson was awarded the British War and Victory medals. [28]

Burial

Sapper George William Nelson is buried at grave reference IV.A.10 Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No.3, Belgium.  His mother provided the epitaph:

“Gone But Not Forgotten

Till We Meet Again

From Your Loving Mother”

The cemetery holds 975 burials. [29]

References:

[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol. 10a p.213 Auckland 1890 Q4

[3] 1891 census

[4] 1901 census

[5] 1911 census

[6] Soldiers Died in the Great War

[7] Medal Roll

[8] “Tunnellers” Capt. W. Grant Grieve & B. Newman 1936 p.110-111

[9] “The Underground War: Military Mining Operations in Support of the Attack on Vimy Ridge 9 April 1917” Michael Boire 1992 p.4 Note: this source states that there were TCs numbered 33

[10] “Beneath Flanders Fields: The Tunnellers’ War 1914-1918” 2004 P. Barton, P. Doyle & J. Vandewalle p.65

[11] Barton et al p.182

[12] A local man who was attached to 171 TC was Captain A. Campbell RAMC, a GP whose practice was at Evenwood.  No doubt his experience working in a coal mining community and knowledge of the ailments of pitmen made his contribution to the war effort invaluable.  Dr Campbell enlisted in June 1915 and was discharged in May 1919 having been Mentioned in Despatches and awarded the Military Cross.

[13] http://www.1914-1918.net/tunnelcoyre.htm

[14] Barton et al p.169

[15] Barton et al p.64

[16] Grieve & Newman 1936 p.43-44

[17] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/171st­Tunnelling_Company

[18] Barton et al p.182

[19] Barton et al p.186

[20] Barton p.188

[21] Barton et al p.186 & 188

[22] Barton et al p.190

[23] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/171st­Tunnelling_Company

[24] Grieve & Newman p.290

[25] Grieve & Newman p.289

[26] SDGW

[27] CWGC

[28] Medal Roll

[29] CWGC

Photographs:

NELSON G.W. Headstone

NELSON G.W.
Headstone

MINING in the YPRES SALIENT

MINING in the
YPRES SALIENT

Source: Barton et al p.66

BATTLE of MESSINES

BATTLE of MESSINES

Source: Barton et al p.163

The Tunnellers' Memorial

The Tunnellers’ Memorial

Plugstreet Tunnellers'

Plugstreet Tunnellers’