UNDERGROUND WARFARE 1914 – 1918 – Review by Wayne Osborne

Thousands of miners on both sides joined their countries’ armies in the Great War.  In Britain, during 1914/15 the output of the pits was put in jeopardy because so many of them joined up.  Industry, railways, the navy and shipping lines were desperate for coal, so too were cold and hungry women, children and workers.  Attempts were made to ‘comb’ the miners out of the forces and return them to the mines but often the miners refused to go back, preferring instead to remain with the colours and their comrades; they lied when asked their about civilian trade.  A fair number of miners had joined the army to get away from the coal face and did not go home to mine coal or join tunnelling companies. Many simply chose to fight and die as infantrymen rather than go underground again and they made tough, reliable soldiers.  However, a number of them did agree to ply their trade for the army and this book is about them and their work on both sides of,and under the line.

Even though we often think of the Great War soldiers leading a troglodyte existence in their trenches, dug into the earth with dug outs carved from earth, rock and chalk.  I think that we often forget those who delved even deeper below, excavating claustrophobic tunnels, shoring up chambers, listening for hours in sweating fear, calmly packing explosives and detonating the charges.  They have been out of sight and out of modern mind, until now. Simon Jones’s technical but accessible book brings the miner/soldiers of the Great War into the light.It examines subterranean warfare and mining operations that were carried out during the Great War by the British and Commonwealth, French, German and Turkish forces.

It is a comprehensive work that deals chronologically with major operations and the contribution made to hose operations.  I am glad to say that there is a fascinating, if short, section in the chapter “Tunnels and the Infantry Attack,” about tunnelling at Gallipoli.  Mining, counter mining, excavation and the use of underground accommodation and communications is covered.As is the use of tunnels for the attack and destruction of enemy trenches.Simon Jones writes of underground combat and fires raging below ground, of tunnels and galleries collapsed and men trapped below.Miners overcome by gasses and heroic rescues.  There are harrowing accounts of chaos and confusion underground, as mines blew up and men fought in the dark, cramped tunnels and galleries, and of the psychological after-effects that this had upon the officers and men.  Simon Jones gives us an informative insight into the nerve jangling occupation of listening underground, the men who carried out that task and the equipment developed to aid their work.  It was a vital job because the listeners could gather intelligence for the senior officers from enemy conversations, listen to enemy tunnelling and be forewarned of impending underground attack or mine explosion.

Throughout the book one is reminded of the race between the enemies to obtain better and more efficient equipment for all aspects of tunnelling.  It raises a smile when the different sides complain that their opposite numbers have better equipment than them.  This always happened, above or below ground.  The infantry has always believed that the opposition had better weapons.  It should not be a surprise that the miners also thought that way in terms of equipment and machinery.

Then, when the British gained the ascendancy in 1917 there came the rapid decline of underground operations.  Certainly in 1918 there was little need for it as the war became one of movement once again.  Also, mining operations on the scale that brought about success at Messines took a great deal of time to prepare; work under that ridge had begun in 1915.  It would take time to mount another similar operation and such workwould require static lines.Naturally, the underground warfare specialists became less important to the High Commands after 1917.

Miners were always proud of their skill, theywere and are tough individuals and this comes across in the book.No one seemed to know what to do with them when not working in their true role and attempts were made to employ them in ways that utilised their skills. For instance the miners were always happy to help the infantry, gunners and medics by digging and preparing decent dugouts for them.  Although more often than not that work was undertaken by ‘resting’ infantry who were brought up to the line to do manual work for the Engineers.  This quotation from the bookspeaks for the miners of all of the nations in the war, “At mining we were omnipotent and our own masters; at dugouts we were ‘nobody’s children’. Still, mining was a dirty game in more ways than one …”

The book is well furnished with diagrams and illustrations from contemporary publications and there are some photographs.  An excellent bibliography lists Australian, British, Canadian, French, German, New Zealand sources, books and articles; war time, post war and modern.  Sadly, there are no Turkish sources but that is not surprising.  I am delighted to see that my friend from the MA course at Birmingham, Ritchie Wood, gets a mention for his MA dissertation, The Contribution of the British Mining Effort on the Western Front to the Allied Victory.  He was doing that while I was bogged down in the trenches doing my dissertation on the 17th (Northern) Division.

There are not many books written about underground warfare, not compared with other publications about the Great War, so this is a rare bird indeed.  By using sources from different nationalities Simon Jones has written a well-rounded work and I know that I shall refer to it in the future.  I enjoyed reading it.  This book fills a gap in the historiography of the Great War, it is one to read and if you are interested in mining and/or underground warfare, this book is a must.

Reviewed by Dr.Wayne Osborne for War History Online

By Simon Jones.
Published by Pen & Sword Ltd, 2010.
Paperback, 288 pages.
ISBN 978 1 84415 962 8

Wayne Osborne

Wayne Osborne is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE