THE TUNNELLERS: THE WAR UNDERGROUND

THE TUNNELLERS: THE WAR UNDERGROUND

Undermining enemy positions has long been a military tactic and one which was soon put into operation on the Western Front by both sides.  This article looks at a number of local men from the Gaunless Valley and other villages in south west Durham who served with the Royal Engineers Tunnelling Companies. 

The formation of the Royal Engineers’ Tunnelling Companies began during the winter of 1914/15.  It 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 they were rushed to the areas where their expertise was most needed.  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.

In June 1916, there were up to 24,000 men continuously employed underground serving with 32 tunnelling companies (by July 1916) operating along the British Front:

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

The plan below shows the area known as the Ypres Salient in Belgium where tunnelling operations by both sides took place.

Mining in the Ypres Salient

It is known that at least 8 men from our local area died whilst on active service with tunnelling companies.  They are:

  1. Sapper George A. Chatt, 177th TC, killed in action 14 December 1915 from Crook
  2. Sapper John Thomas Milburn, 177th TC, died 31 March 1916, from Shildon
  3. Sapper George Henry Waters, 256th TC, killed in action 14 September 1916 from Copley
  4. Sapper Robert Raine, 258th TC, killed in action 15 October 1916 from Witton Park
  5. Sapper Herbert Plummer, 174th TC, died of wounds 5 December 1916 from Witton Park
  6. Sapper Paddy Creegan, 177th TC, killed in action 3 June 1917 from Witton Park
  7. Sapper William Hull Bagley, 177th TC, killed in action 4 July 1917 from St. Helen’s Auckland
  8. Sapper George William Nelson, 171st TC, killed in action 29 April 1918 from West Auckland

Captain Angus Campbell, Evenwood’s local doctor served with 171st Tunnelling Company as its medical officer. Sapper Edmund Carrick also from Evenwood served in the 177th then 176th Tunnelling Companies before being gassed in December 1917 and discharged from duty in December 1918.

GEORGE AUTY CHATT 1874 – 1915

102449 Sapper George Auty Chatt, 177th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers was killed in action 14 December 1915, aged 41.  He is commemorated at the R.E. Grave, Railway Wood, Belgium and also the Barnard Castle and Crook War Memorials.  George A. Chatt was born 1874 at Barnard Castle, was married in 1897 and lived at Barnard Castle, Shildon and Crook.  He worked as a miner.  He enlisted in May/June 1915 and by 10 June Sapper George A. Chatt was in France serving with 177th Tunnelling Company.  He was engaged in tunnelling work at Hooge, Wytschaete, Mount Sorrel, Messines and Railway Wood.  Sapper George A. Chatt left a widow, a step daughter and a son.

JOHN THOMAS MILBURN 1872 – 1916

102256 Sapper John Thomas Milburn, 177th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, died 31 March 1916 and is buried at Etaples Military Cemetery, France.  He was 44 years old and is commemorated on Shildon War Memorial.  John was born 1872 at Evenwood, one of at least 5 children, living at Swan Street and then the Oaks, Evenwood.  He worked as a coal miner.  In 1903, he married Lizzie Boyce at Glasgow.  They settled in the Bishop Auckland area living at South Church, Etherley Dene and Shildon.  Aged 42, John enlisted 3 June 1915, specifically recruited as a, “tunneller’s mate” in the newly established Royal Engineers Tunnelling Companies.  By 7 June he was serving overseas and joined 177th Tunnelling Company, 18 June.  This company was engaged in work for the British Second Army in Belgium on the Ypres Salient at Railway Wood, Hooge and Wytschaete.  In March 1916, he was taken ill and died at No 4. General Hospital, Camiers, France, having served 299 days overseas.  John T. Milburn left a widow and 5 children.

Sapper J.T. Milburn’s headstone

GEORGE HENRY WATERS 1890 – 1916

158540 Sapper George Henry Waters, served with the 256th Tunnelling Company, RE and was killed in action 14 September 1916, aged 26.  He is buried in Maroeuil British Cemetery, France and is commemorated on the Copley War Memorial and the memorial plaque in St. John the Evangelist Church, Lynesack.  George H. Waters was born 1890 in the Parish of Lynesack and Softley and the Waters family lived at the Post Office, Copley.  George was employed as a coal miner.  In 1913, he married Mary E. Fletcher.  George Henry Waters enlisted at Bishop Auckland and entered France sometime after 31 December 1915.  The 256th TC had served in the Vimy sector from July 1916 and was still there at the time of his death.  The usual violence of warfare meant that the Germans regularly launched artillery bombardments, mortar fire and aerial torpedoes to disrupt tunnelling work.  Sapper George Waters was a victim of such an attack.  Lieutenant Stafford Hill, adjutant to the company, provided an explanation of the circumstances surrounding his death in a letter sent to George’s wife:

“Dear Madam

I am very sorry to have to return you your letter addressed to your late husband together with the book by Ruskin on Political Economy.

It may be some small consolation to you to know that your husband did not suffer, he was struck by an aerial torpedo and killed instantly, one other man being slightly wounded.

Your husband was a general favourite with his brother soldiers and appreciated by his officers.

Wishing that the knowledge that he died whilst serving his country, bravely doing his duty in the gigantic struggle against an unscrupulous enemy, may help to assuage the poignancy of your grief.

Believe me I remain

Yours faithfully

Stafford Hill Lt. RE

Adjt 256 (T) Coy RE”

Sapper G.H. Waters

ROBERT RAINE 1883 – 1916

175601 Sapper Robert Raine, 258th Tunnelling Company, RE, was killed in action 15 October 1916, aged 34.  He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Loos Memorial, France.   Robert was born at Fylands Bridge, Tindale Crescent, near Bishop Auckland, had lived at Escomb, Tow Law and Witton Park and worked as a coal miner.  He enlisted into the Army Service Corps Remounts before transferring to the 258th Tunnelling Company, RE.  This company worked in the Loos sector in northern France.  He and 11 others were working at the face when the Germans blew a mine, killing all.  The War Diary reported that 12 RE men were killed 15 October 1916.  Other sappers serving with 258 Coy RE who died on this day included 158513 H. Allen, 158551 W. Copestake, 86132 J. McCain, 175597 G. Peacock, 175577 J. Wilson, 86132 J. McCall and 132192 W. Salmon.  Of these men, 2 have burials – Sappers H. Allen and J.P. Wilson lie in Philosophe British Cemetery, Mazingarbe.  Sappers W. Copestake, J. McCall, G. Peacock, R. Raine and W. Salmon have no known grave and are commemorated on the Loos Memorial.  To date, I have not traced a resting place for 86132 Joe McCain, (formerly 5064, Irish Guards) born May, Co. Tyrone, Ireland or the names of the other 4 RE casualties for this day.

Robert left a widow and 4 children.

The Loos Memorial is along the boundary walls at Dud Corner Cemetery

HENRY PLUMMER 1883 – 1916

102580  Sapper Henry Plummer, 174th Tunnelling Company, RE, died of wounds 5 December 1916 aged 32.  He is buried at Warloy-Baillon Communal Cemetery Extension, France.  Henry was born at Witton Park and worked as a miner.  He was “specially enlisted” as a tunneller and embarked with British Expeditionary Force to France in June 1915.  Initially, his company 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 blown 1 July 1916 to signal the start of the infamous Battle of the Somme. 

By the 23 June, all arrangements were completed.  A heavy bombardment by British guns began and continued until 1 July.  The following is an extract from the 174 Coy RE War Diary:

“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.”

1 July 1916: Plan to show the location of the Y Sap and Lochnagar mines

174 Coy RE was congratulated for its efforts by letter from General Sir H. Rawlinson (Commanding the Fourth Army) and Lieut.-Gen. H. Horne (Commanding XV Corps). 

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.  3 December, Second Lt. W. Armitage was wounded by shell fire and 4 December Second Lt. J.C. Simpson was 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.  Sapper Henry Plummer left a widow, Mary Ann and 1 son, William Henry.

PATRICK CREEGAN 1887 – 1917

102450 Sapper Patrick Creegan, 177th Tunnelling Company, RE, was killed in action 3 June 1917, aged 30.  He is buried at Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium and is commemorated on the Witton Park war memorials.

Patrick “Paddy” Creegan was a coal miner who was born, lived and worked at Witton Park before moving to Stanley, Crook.  Miners, perhaps thought the best way to serve their country was to use their skills at the front.  They were encouraged to volunteer and were recruited specifically for tunnelling work and miners such as Patrick Creegan was at the forefront of this work.  He entered France in June 1915 and worked in the Railway Wood sector near Ypres, Belgium. 

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 specific 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 Patrick Creegan

An indication of the tunnelling company’s work is provided by the 177th Company War Diary, specifically the Weekly Mine Report for 6 June 1917 which gives a detailed account of mining activity – expanding, repairing dugouts, extending galleries and tunnels, blowing mines and repairing damage from enemy activity.  Accompanying notes state:

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

There is a report of the mine which exploded on 3 June, stating that the underground damage was slight. Another report gives casualties for the month of June 1917:

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

Sapper Patrick Creegan was killed in action 3 June 1917. 

WILLIAM HULL BAGLEY 1883 – 1917

157781 Sapper William Bagley, 177th Tunnelling Company, RE, was killed in action 4 July 1917, aged about 24.  He is buried at New Irish Farm Cemetery, near Ypres and is commemorated on the War Memorials at St. Helens Memorial Cottages and West Auckland.  William Bagley was born about 1883 at Willington, Co. Durham and worked as a coal miner (hewer). In 1910, he married Jessie Longstaff and by 1911, they lived at 6 Maude Terrace, St. Helen’s with 7-month old son, Sylvester.

The 177 TC War Diary for July 1917 reports that its strength was 24 Officers and 321 Other Ranks and attached infantry was 3 Officers and 242 Other Ranks.  The casualty sheets included details for Royal Engineers and Infantry men and reports that 3 RE other ranks had been killed and 6 wounded.  For the date of 4 July 1917, details included 1 other rank admitted to hospital and 1 was reported missing (possibly Sapper W.H. Bagley).  The War Office Daily List, 17 October 1917 reported that 157781 Sapper W. Bagley was “missing”.  Later details record that Sapper W.H. Bagley was, “presumed dead” on or since 4 July 1917. He was afforded a battlefield burial and later, his body was exhumed and reburied.  It is likely that he was killed as a result of the usual violence of warfare – shelling or sniper fire.

Sapper William Bagley’s headstone

The Battle of Messines 7 – 14 June 1917

Although, not directly involved, 177th Tunnelling Company worked immediately to the north at the Railway Wood sector.  The following brief account is given for the Battle of Messines.  At the commencement of the battle, Major-General Charles Hartington, Chief of Staff of the British Second Army said:

 “I do not know whether or not we shall change history tomorrow but we shall certainly alter geography.”

Work had begun in July 1915 and by the end of May 1917, all was ready.  At zero hour, 7 June 1917, 19 mines with a total of over 900,000 lbs of explosive were fired along the 10 kilometre front, all within 30 seconds of each other.  The explosions were clearly heard in London and registered on a seismograph in Switzerland.  The German defences were totally shattered with several thousand troops were 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. 

Two eyewitness accounts of the detonation of the Messines mines were given by Lieutenant B. Frayling and Private Laister.  Lieutenant Frayling remarked:

 “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 was a sheet of flame…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.”

Private J.R. Laister commented:

 “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.”

Messines was regarded as a major success even though early gains were not capitalised upon and later German counter attacks regained much lost ground. 

7 June 1917: Plan to show the location of mines at the Battle of Messines

AFTER MESSINES

The Battle of Passchendaele followed Messines and this offensive continued throughout the months of August, September, October into November when it was abandoned.  The incredibly wet weather was finally considered to be too bad for war.  Ironically, the battle continued unabated during the late summer and autumn through the wettest months on record.  Having taken the Passchendaele Ridge, the British were left with little natural shelter since the artillery from both sides had flattened and flooded the whole area.  Protection was required from German artillery bombardment and in January 1918, the Allied High Command moved 25,000 specialist tunnellers and 50,000 attached infantrymen to the Ypres Salient to construct subterranean structures.  200 dugouts at a depth of 30m [about 100 ft.] which could accommodate up to 2,000 men, were constructed.  In March 1918, more people lived underground in the Ypres area than reside in the town today.  171st Tunnelling Company worked on these dugouts.  2 examples of its work are:

  1. Zonnebeke Church: in March 1918, a deep dugout in the centre of Zonnebeke located directly beneath the ruined church was constructed.  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.
  2. Vampire Dugout, located near Polygon Wood:  it was a Brigade HQ for up to 50 men.  It became operational from early April 1918 but after only a few days, the dugout was lost when the Germans swept through the area during the Battle of the Lys, 9 – 29 April. 

The photos below are of the Zonnebeke Church dugout.  Water was pumped out for the public to view it between July and November 2017, after which it was allowed to flood. Sapper G.W. Nelson worked here.  I visited the site and took the following photos.

The restored church beneath which lies the 1918 dugout
A plan which outlines the church and superimposes the dugout beneath
Timber steps leading down to the gallery.
A view along the gallery

GEORGE WILLIAM NELSON 1890 – 1918

175834 Sapper George William Nelson, 171st Tunnelling Company, RE, was killed in action 29 April 1918, aged 27.  He is buried at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No.3, Belgium and commemorated on the West Auckland War Memorial.  George was born at West Auckland in 1890 and the family lived at Ayers Yard, West Auckland.  He was employed as a miner.  Initially, George Nelson was posted to the Durham Light Infantry then he was transferred to the Royal Engineers, 171st Tunnelling Company.  This Company was largely made up of sewer men [known as clay kickers] and Durham and Welsh miners.  The Durham men had a good reputation, as Lieutenant Frayling remarked:

“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.”                     

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.  As the Germans advanced some RE men manned the trenches coming under machine gun and light trench mortar fire.  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 of 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”

During this mayhem, possibly during a rear-guard engagement with the enemy, 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 were:

  • 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.

Sapper George William Nelson’s headstone

Messines: a postscript:

  • In July 1955, one mine exploded during a thunderstorm. 
  • Five fully charged mines containing 166,000 lb (75,500 kg) remain today.

ANGUS CAMPBELL 1876 – 1958

Angus Campbell was born in 1876 at Colonsay, Argyll, Scotland, the son of Angus and Christina Campbell.  He studied to be a medical practitioner at Glasgow and practised at Billy Row near Crook and Evenwood near Bishop Auckland, County Durham, in the north east of England.  In 1911, he married Edith Croll, a teacher, at Berwick-on-Tweed.  They lived at Evenwood and had 3 children, Elsie born 1912, Angus born 1917 and Kathleen born 1919.  Dr Angus Campbell enlisted June 1915 into the RAMC and was posted to the Royal Engineers, 171st Tunnelling Company as Captain (medical practitioner) with which he served for the duration of the war except for a period with the 173rd Coy RE between November 1917 and March 1918.  Captain A. Campbell was awarded the Military Cross in the King’s New Years’ Honours List. He was demobilised in June 1919 and resumed his medical career in Evenwood.  Dr Angus Campbell MC returned to his native Scotland on retirement for holidays.  He died in August 1958 aged 82, his death being recorded at Port Ellen on the island of Islay, Argyll in 1958.

Captain A. Campbell

EDMUND CARRICK 1873 – 1957

Edmund Carrick was born 1873 at Evenwood and he worked as a miner.  He was married 3 times.  His first wife Ann died in 1909, his second wife Hannah probably died in the USA during or shortly after the war and his third wife Rose survived Edmund by 22 years. 

In September 1914, aged 41½, Edmund enlisted into the Durham Light Infantry and joined 2/DLI on the Western Front in August 1915 before being transferred about 6 months later (February 1916) to 177 Tunnelling Company RE.  Sapper E. Carrick served with this unit for 6 months at Railway Wood on the Ypres Salient before being re-mustered to 176 Tunnelling Company.  He served from August 1916 to December 1917 in the Givenchy sector preparing for the Arras Offensive and thereafter in the Gavelle/Oppy sector.  6 December 1917, Sapper E. Carrick was gassed and was sent to the UK for treatment.  He did not respond well to treatment and was discharged in December 1918, aged 45 years 9 months.  He had served a total of 4 years 115 days in the Army, 2 years 127 days of which were in France and Belgium.

Edmund resumed his employment at Randolph Colliery, Evenwood and died aged 83 in 1957.

MEMORIALS TO THE ROYAL ENGINEERS AND TUNNELING COMPANIES

BAILLIEUL
PLOEGSTEERT MUSEUM
The Royal Engineers’ Grave, Railway Wood.