There is one area of World War One trench warfare on which little light has been shed. Underneath the trenches lies the secret history of the Royal Engineer Tunneling companies. These men had the task of digging underneath the trenches into no-man’s-land and planting explosives under enemy territory. Once these explosives were detonated, the infantry would charge towards enemy lines and take advantage of the confusion to make territorial advances. This was an extremely dangerous but highly successful operation that lasted up until 1917.
Somewhat strangely, most of the men in these secret regiments were not the well-trained operatives you would expect. They were generally civilians with practically no training. John Norton Griffiths was an engineer and MP for Wednesbury when he came up with the revolutionary plan of the tunneling regiments. He argued that the miners and clay kickers he had worked with digging out the Manchester sewers would be far superior at tunnel warfare compared to their German enemies. And thus Norton Griffiths was tasked with setting up the Royal Engineer Tunneling companies.
These tunnellers constantly worked under extremely dangerous, potentially fatal conditions. Carbon monoxide poisoning, tunnel collapse and unplanned explosions of earlier mines were all major risks of this warfare. However, the most terrifying fear to these men was the hand-to-hand fight in the darkif they were to encounter enemy tunnellers. Listening devices were practically their only attempt to stop this fear from becoming a constant reality.
The tunneling companies suffered many casualties throughout the war. Five British men were killed whilst tunneling in the Somme in 1915, including William Arthur Lloyd, an engineer from Wrexham. Although their cause of death is officially unknown, many of these men sacrificed themselves in a bid to defeat the enemy.
The tunnel regiments became increasingly successful throughout WW1. At the start of the Somme offensive, the British forces detonated 24 tonnes of explosives under enemy territory. Additionally, a mine weighing over 91000lbs. created a hole in Spanbroekmolen that is large enough to house a 40ft deep lake now known as the Pool of Peace.
This mining warfare reached its zenith with the explosion of 19 mines under the Messines Ridge in 1917. The fluid movement of war rendered infantry siege tactics ineffective and therefore the work of the tunnellers became increasingly useless, as they could no longer keep up with the pace of war. The men from these tunneling companies were now tasked with digging dugouts and worked as infantrymen on the ground – their secret war was over.