PLUMMER Henry 1883 – 1916

HENRY PLUMMER 1883 – 1916

Sapper 102580   Henry Plummer, 174th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, died of wounds 5 December 1916 aged 32.  He is buried at Warloy-Baillon Communal Cemetery Extension, France[1] and commemorated on Witton Park war memorials.

Family Details

Henry Plummer was born in 1883,[2] at Woodside, near Witton Park, the son of Henry and Kate Plummer.  There were at least 6 children:

  • John bc.1879 at Escomb
  • Kate/Harriet bc.1881 at Woodside
  • Henry born 1883 at Woodside
  • Mary bc.1886 at Escomb
  • Elizabeth bc.1889 at Escomb
  • Ernest bc.1892 at Escomb

In 1891, the family lived at Escomb and Henry was employed as a, “Coke Labourer”.[3]  By 1901, the family lived at Woodside Square and 42 years old Henry worked as a, Coke Drawer” and 18 years old Henry junior was employed as a, “Coke Worker”.[4]

18 April 1903, Henry Plummer married Mary Ann Peart at St. Paul’s Church, Witton Park.[5]  They had one son, William Henry born 17 March 1905 at Witton Park.[6]  By 1911, Henry and Mary Plummer lived at Gurlish Lane, Coundon, Bishop Auckland with their 6 years old son, William Henry.  Henry was employed as a, “Coke Oven Labourer”.[7]  By 1915, the family lived at 9 Dudley Terrace, New Kyo, Annfield Plain, County Durham and worked as a miner.[8]

Military Details

10 June 1915,[9] aged 32, Henry Plummer attested at London to join the Royal Engineers.  He was allocated the service number 102580.  Due to his skills as a coal miner, he had been specially recruited to join one of the recently established Tunnelling Companies.  He joined the 174th Tunnelling Company (174 Coy RE). [10]  Sapper Henry Plummer entered France 15 June 1915.[11]  A record dated 12 March 1916 confirms that Sapper H. Plummer, “possesses necessary qualifications for rating as Tunneller.  He has been mustered accordingly with effect from 12th March 1916.”[12] 


The formation of the new Royal Engineer Tunnelling Companies began during the winter of 1914/15 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.  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.[13]

By July 1916, there was a total of 32 tunnelling companies – 25 British, 3 Australian, 3 Canadian and 1 New Zealand operating along the British Front.  In June 1916, it was recorded that there were between 18,000 and 24,000 men continuously employed underground. [14]  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.[15]

174 Coy RE was formed in March 1915 and served with the Third Army.  It moved to the Houplines area of northern France where it was in action in the Rue du Bois sector. 

In July 1915, 174 Coy RE moved to the Somme and took over mining operations between La Boisselle and Carnoy, some 24 miles northeast of Amiens.  The unit established HQ at Bray, taking over 66 shafts at Carnoy, Fricourt, Maricourt and La Boisselle.  German miners dug tunnels parallel to the front line.  An area to the south west of La Boisselle was subject to much activity, known as the “Glory Hole” to the British, the “Lilot de La Boisselle” to the French and the “Granathof” (Shell Farm”) to the Germans, and each company of mining engineers attempted to probe even deeper and detonate ever greater explosives.  Each side tried to detect and destroy their enemy.

Most of the following details are derived from the 174 Coy RE War Diaries. [16]

1 August, arrangements were organised as follows:

  • No.1 Section (Lt. Hill) CARNOY sector
  • No.2 Section (Lt. Clouthan) BOIS FRANCAIS & “D” FRANCAIS sector
  • No. 3 Section (2/Lt. Nicol) BOIS FRANCAIS & “D” FRANCAIS sector
  • No.4 Section (Lt. Talbot) MARICORT sector

2 August, the Germans exploded a mine and there were 5 sappers gassed.  82967 Sapper Pryde was killed and 82667 Sapper McGowan was severely wounded in the subsequent bombardment. Sapper Pryde was buried in French Military Cemetery, Carnoy. On the 11th, 82937 Sapper H. Greenwell was killed by rifle bullet and he also was buried in Carnoy Military Cemetery.

1 September, in the FRICOURT sector, the enemy fired a mine.  There were no RE casualties but there were 20 infantry casualties, those working on fatigue duties.  86216 Lance Cpl. Riley was killed by rifle bullet.  Throughout the month, there were exchanges of mine and camouflet blows and on the 19th 102486 Sapper T. Musson was killed and Sapper P. Morgan was slightly wounded.

October followed in a similar fashion and on the 2nd, Lt. G. Milner was wounded by rifle bullet, on the 5th Sappers H. Ferguson and W. Dickenson, 1 Cheshire and 3 Dorset Regiment men on mining fatigues were killed, on the 8th Second Lt. N.G.I. Sherwood, Second Lt. J. Paynter and Sapper J. Burns were killed at the face.  Their bodies were recovered on the 12th.

On the 16, Lt. R. Stokes took over command of 174 Coy RE (promoted to Captain)

On the 25th, an enemy fired a mine in the “D” FRANCAIS sector and 1 sapper & 3 QVR fatigue men were killed (gas)

In October 1915, 179 Coy RE and 183 Coy RE joined 174 Coy RE on the Somme as preparations for the Allied offensive took shape.  British tunnelling companies were tasked with placing 19 mines beneath the German positions and preparing a series of “Russian saps” into No-Man’s Land to allow infantry to attack from a short distance.[17]    Two large mines were planned, one to the north of La Boisselle ( Y Sap) and one to the south (Lochnagar).  Some 40,000 lbs of ammonal was placed in the chamber beneath Y Sap.  In addition, the Glory Hole was to be attacked by 2 smaller charges of 8,000 lbs each, designed to destroy German tunnels.[18]

Action in the months of November and December followed in a similar manner with a large explosion taking place in “D” FRANCAIS sector causing sever casualties in 183 Coy RE, 174 Coy RE organised the rescue.

In January 1916, the billets at Bray were shelled.  Casualties included Sapper Fleetwood and 3 fatigue men killed and there were 6 sappers and 3 fatigue men wounded.  On the 17th, the company blew a mine – 70ft. deep charged with 1500lbs explosives, believed to be a record for a single charge.  The resulting crater was 40-45 yards across.  The Germans retaliated on the 18th by exploding a mine and artillery bombardment.  About 70 fatigue men were gassed.

On 13 February, the enemy blew a camouflet and Sapper Steadman was killed.  His body was not recovered until the 15th.

During early March, enemy was very active with trench mortars rifle grenades but underground relatively inactive.  In recognition for their good work on the 13th February, the following officers and men were recommended for honours – Second Lt. Sansom for MC, Second Lt. Whitehead, Capt. Nichol and Davies Mentioned in Despatches and Cpl. Buttery for DCM.

11 April, Sapper Boocock was killed by a rifle grenade.

25 May, the enemy exploded a mine.  Sappers Bullock, Eggleton and Littleton and 2 infantry fatigues were killed and 4 sappers injured, 5 were gassed and 2 “fatigue men” were gassed.

In June, as the build up to the Battle of the Somme progressed, 174 Coy RE billets were moved from Bay to Morlancourt, mining exchanges continued and British bombardment of German positions increased.  86363 Cpl. Hughes was killed and 2 sappers were wounded.

13/14 June, 2 mines were charged and blown.  A conference took place with OC Sections regarding “forthcoming operations” then on the 19th, a conference held by CRE regarding forthcoming operations.  Operation Order No.2 was issued.

By the 23rd, all arrangements were completed.  There was a heavy bombardment by British guns all day.

25th, the heavy bombardment continued all day.  B Coy was repairing roads all day. 26th, the bombardment continued.    B Coy was on road duty.  A Coy carried on with a surface sap.

27th, the bombardment continued and there was a hurricane bombardment between 4.40 to 5.50am.  28th, the attack, timed for the 29th, was postponed for 2 days – no reason given. 

The following is an extract from the 174 Coy RE War Diary for 30 June, 1 to 3 July 1916, which were the crucial days for the opening of the infamous Battle of the Somme:

30 June: “Spent night at the Quarry.  Manchesters seem to have put their men into the Quarry and left them entirely in our charge.  Could not find an officer anywhere when I wished to move their men.  Bombardment unabated.  Two spells of hurricane bombardment today together with smoke bombs.  Enemy replied feebly.  Preparations for tomorrows attack completed.  Sheltered approx. 1500 men of 20/Manchesters, 1/RWF, Stokes mortars & machine gunners.  Not a single casualty and air remains good underground.  All men REs told off for their various work for the morrow.  Resting until 5.30am.”

1 July: “Intensive bombardment by our artillery 6 5 memo.  Infantry assault at 7.30am.  CAPT. WHITEHEAD successfully blew his mine at 7.45am & then assisted the infantry being seriously wounded whilst attacking with them.  Excellent work done by this officer & Sergt. WARD should have recognition.  2nd assault delivered at 2-30pm.  MANCHESTERS got in some hot work near FRICOURT was able to watch everything from the Daisy Cutter.  At 2-45pm broke through in Daisy Cutter but AEROPLANE TRENCH could not be found.  All the night our men were bringing in wounded.  2/Lt.  FOWLER went on leave.

2 July: Inspecting German mine system.  Very much impressed by their thoroughness but consider that they have been frightfully extravagant especially with timber.  Consider their mining policy vastly inferior to ours.

3 July:  Continued exploration of German system.  B Coy on roads all day.  2/Lt. ELEY wounded in neck & shoulder by rifle fire.  CAPT. NICHOL went on leave.  CAPT. WHITEHEAD recommended for MC.  Sergt. WARD for DCM for gallant work on 1st inst.  2/Lt. ROGERS accidentally wounded whilst on duty.”

174 Coy RE had performed duties as required and were congratulated for their efforts by letter by General Sir H. Rawlinson (Commanding the IV Army) and Lieut-Gen. H. Horne (Commanding XV Corps).  As reported above, Officers of 174 Coy RE inspected captured German trench systems, dug outs and chambers.  Captain Hutchison was impressed with their work but considered it inferior to the British work.   The company was instructed to salvage German equipment and thereafter reverted to routine work of repairing roads, road making, well sinking and clearing dugouts.

28 July, 174 Coy RE moved from Morlancourt to the Reserve Army Area at Beaussart. It operated in the Hamel and Beaumont-Hamel sector and worked on shallow saps for an infantry attack, ultimately unsuccessful.

6 September, the company commenced a new mining scheme around Robert Trench. 

13 September, the Controller of Mines met with officers to discuss the mining programme for the forthcoming 6 months.  174 Coy RE was tasked with operating in the Hebuterne sector, moved billets to Aveluy with HQ at Chateau Trancourt, Albert commencing work on HQ dug outs and enlarging dug outs at Mouquet Farm.   

29 November, the company moved to Ovillers Post for work in the 51st Divisional Area. 

Throughout the month of December, officers and men from the 51st and 61st Divisions were attached for fatigue duty.  On the 3rd, Second Lt. W. ARMITAGE wounded by shell fire and on the 4th, Second Lt. J.C. SIMPSON killed by enemy rifle fire in DESIRE TRENCH.  There is no specific reference to Sapper H. Plummer who died of wounds 5 December 1916.  It is assumed that he was wounded by enemy shell fire on the 3rd or 4th December and succumbed to his wounds on the 5th.

Awards and Medals

Sapper Henry Plummer was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the Victory and British War medals.[19]

Medal Roll Card Index


Sapper Henry Plummer, 174th Tunnelling Company, RE, is buried at grave reference VII.D.18, Warloy-Baillon Communal Cemetery Extension, near Albert, Somme, France.


Henry Plummer’s wife Mary Ann received his pension.[20]


Henry Plummer was born in Witton Park in 1883 and lived at Woodside, Escomb and Woodside Square.  By 1911, his parents, Henry and Catherine, lived at California whilst Henry junior, now married, lived at Annfield Plain. Henry was “specially enlisted” as a tunneller and embarked with British Expeditionary Force to France in June 1915.  Initially, his unit, the 174 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers worked in northern France then moved south to the Somme to prepare mines, specifically the Y Sap, north of La Boisselle.  This was one of the mines to be blown 1 July 1916 to signal the start of the Battle of the Somme.  After this, 174 Coy RE was engaged on routine work whilst always subject to enemy shelling.   Sapper Henry Plummer died of wounds 5 December 1916, aged 32.  He left a widow, Mary Ann and 1 son, William Henry.



[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)

[2] England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p.174 Auckland 1883 Q4

[3] 1891 census

[4] 1901 census

[5] Army Form B.2505 Descriptive Report on Enlistment, Particulars as to Marriage and England & Wales Marriage Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p.398 Auckland 1903 Q2

[6] Army Form B.2505 Descriptive Report on Enlistment, Particulars as to Children

[7] 1911 census

[8] Army Form B.2505

[9] Army Form B.122

[10] Army Form B.2505 Statement of the Services

[11] Medal Roll card index

[12] Possibly confirmation was required that he was qualified to work as a “tunneller” rather than a “tunneller’s mate” or some other job description, in order to define a specific wage rate.


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

[15] “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.

[16] The National Archives refs: WO 95/404/1, WO 95/404/2 & WO 95/404/3 War Diaries for 174 Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers



[19] Medal Roll card index

[20] Pension Claimants card index