Nationally, we can understand why there’s Trafalgar Square and Waterloo Station. Historic England tells us “Battlefields have frequently been the setting for crucial turning-points in English history.” In Shrewsbury we have Battlefield Road, Battlefield Heritage Park and the church. In town there’s Alma Street marking the first battle in the Crimea and Salamanca Avenue from the Peninsular War. These individuals are also commemorated: Wellington Close, Napoleon Drive, Nelson Place, Benbow Close.

THE MYSTERY OF THE TUNNEL

However, 15 miles from Shrewsbury why on earth is there a Somme Tunnel at The Bog in the lead-mining district?

Folktales hang like the bats from the roof of this tunnel. It has been suggested the owners were aware they would find no minerals of value. The scheme was to provide employment for their workers or to protect them from conscription, which had been introduced in mid 1916. Neither of these tales has any credibility. The country was running out of men. The last thing needed was work-creation.

By the start of the First World War the great days of lead mining in the Snailbeach field were over. Shropshire Mines Ltd at The Bog, turned to barite (barium sulphate). A new shaft was sunk and later an exploratory horizontal adit was driven into the hill. This is the Somme Tunnel (SO 357 977). Today it is safe and remains in good condition for 135 yards. A metal grille is locked to protect the bats which hibernate in winter.

THE OUTBREAK OF WAR

When the war began the British Army was behind in tunnelling. No one was prepared for a war which would last four years and no one had planned on a war in the trenches. The French and German armies responded more quickly and by November 1914, they were already engaged in what would become the Underground War.

At 9:00am 20th December ten mines of 110lb each, exploded under the British lines at Givenchy. Lt Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson wanted to form a dedicated mining battalion. Sir John French, however, ordered the Royal Engineers to dig the retaliatory mines, but they lacked the trained men. Brigade commanders began forming their own mining sections and attached them to an RE field company.

FROM THE MANCHESTER SEWERS TO THE WESTERN FRONT

Which was when John Norton-Griffiths stepped into the breach. He was the biggest single influence in getting the British effort not off-the-ground but under it. He was an MP, a millionaire, entrepreneur, and engineer. In 1913 his men were digging sewers beneath Manchester. Four days before war was declared, he had advertised in the Pall Mall Gazette for men who had served with him in South Africa to be ready to serve with him again. When war was declared, his company was building an extension to the main Manchester drainage system. A unique breed of workers dug through the local clay. They were known as clay-kickers. Norton-Griffiths called them his ‘moles’.

ADVANCING ON THE ENEMY 9 INCHES AT A TIME

Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, was a family friend. Norton-Griffiths wrote in December suggesting the clay-kickers might be very useful. His men, his moles, could dig narrow tunnels which would get underneath the German lines swiftly and silently. At a meeting, JN-G lay down on the carpet and demonstrated clay-kicking. On a wooden frame (known as a cross) with his feet against the workface, both feet would be used to ‘push’ the spade into the soil. The chunk removed would be passed over his head to the bagger, who passed them on back to the trammer, and on to somebody else who would take it out of the system for disposal. Everything is done in silence. This method might be ideal for the soft wet soil of Flanders.

The Germans were the first to use underground explosions to destroy defensive positions. On 20th December 1914 ten mines were exploded along about 1,000 yards of trench held by the Indian Corps. The shock was so great, the survivors quickly retreated, pursued by the Germans who took over their vacated positions. The men killed by the explosion showed no outward sign of injury, having been killed by the blast. More German mines exploded under British lines on 25th January and 3rd February. That did it. On Thursday 18th February 1915 the first party of 20 kickers were told to leave their sewers. That evening they travelled to France and within 36 hours Norton-Griffiths had them tunnelling towards the enemy. His moles were now the most valuable commodity on the Western Front.

THE TUNNELLING COMPANIES

The allied tunnelling companies operated in such secrecy that, for years little was known of their exploits. Their terrifying job was not to charge over the top into No Man’s Land, but to sink explosive-packed tunnels deep beneath it. I like to think, therefore, the inspiration for the name Somme Tunnel sprang, not from any expected British triumph, but from the massive scale of the tunnelling operations on the Somme.

Norton-Griffiths next met the Engineer-in-Chief Brigadier-General George Henry Fowke, and his team. Again he lay on the floor to demonstrate clay kicking. By the end he had convinced everyone, and approval in principle had been given to form eight specialist units. Norton Griffiths would be the liaison officer for the new tunnelling companies. Flamboyant as ever, he travelled around in his Rolls Royce, always driven at break-neck speed by his chauffer. Each unit was to comprise six officers and 227 men. Initially all COs were to be Royal Engineers regulars but this was soon dropped. Most of the junior officers had been surveyors or geologists in civilian life, many working for mining companies.

The tunnellers were a motley bunch, signed up straight from civvy street, with little or no military training. Coal, tin and slate miners, from all over the country, some over 60 years old. They were paid six shillings per day, far more than the ‘poor bloody infantry.’ The usual sapper’s pay was two shillings and six pence. Arguments over pay continued until the end of the war. In addition to the tunnelling Sappers (Royal Engineer), large numbers of infantry were ‘loaned’ as labourers to carry away spoil or bring up explosives and timber for lining the tunnels.

To make the tunnels safer and quicker to deploy, the British Army enlisted experienced coal miners, many outside their nominal recruitment policy. The desperate need for skilled men saw notices requesting volunteer tunnellers posted in collieries, mineral mines and quarries across the nation.

171st Tunnelling Company was formed between February and March 1915 of a small number of specially enlisted miners, with troops selected from the Monmouthshire Siege Company of Royal Engineers. A star from this part of the world was 2/Lt George Fraser Fitzgerald Eager (Born: 1885, Died: 1946) general manager of Madeley Wood Colliery, 1913-15, ‘transferred’ to the Tunnelling Company.

In December 1915, 171st Tunnelling Company began work on the deep mine at Trench 127 at St Yvon. The mine consisted of two chambers with a shared gallery. The name indicates where the initial shaft was dug, not where the mine was placed. The shaft was completed to a depth of 25 metres within four weeks, however after driving a 310 metres gallery the Royal Engineers faced a sudden inrush of quicksand and a concrete dam had to be constructed.

The Wellington Journal of 29th January 1916 contained an account of the heroics which led to his award of the Military Cross ‘for conspicuous gallantry near Frelinghien (a small village on the Franco-Belgian frontier just north east of Armentières).

“On Dec 23 1915 when a charge was placed by our miners in a German gallery in order to destroy it had only partially exploded and warned the enemy, Sec-Lt Eager guarded the entrance to the German gallery and shot a German, while a second charge was being prepared. He had displayed great devotion to duty on Dec 2, when extricating two men from a gallery which had been wrecked by the explosion of a German mine.”

The same issue of the Wellington Journal had these details of Sapper CW Green of Leighton, Ironbridge. A miner from West Cannock Colliery, wife and family live in Cannock. “(He) joined the Headers and Tunnelers Battalion last July. Eldest son of Mrs Green of Rushton Cottage and son-in-law of late Mr T Williams, Spout Lane, Leighton.

Another 12 Tunnelling Companies were formed in 1915 and one more in 1916. Three of the companies formed in 1915 were assigned to the Somme. By 1 January 1916 a new staff post of ‘Inspector of Mines’ was authorised, and filled by Colonel Harvey. One of his first actions was to set up Army Mining Schools. Each Army HQ was to have a ‘Controller of Mines’ directly responsible to Colonel Harvey. He saw to it that the tunnelling companies would play their part in the ‘Big Push’, which Haig had planned for the Somme front. Despite all the difficulties, by the end of June 1916 there were 25 British tunnelling companies.

MORE BANG UNDERNEATH THE BOCHE

Guncotton and gunpowder was used in our early mines. Then at 7pm on 19th July 1915 175th Tunnelling Company employed ammonal for the first time. Ammonal had been invented some 15 years earlier, but never previously employed by the military. It was a compound of 65% ammonium nitrate, 15% TNT, 17% coarse aluminium and 3% charcoal. It is an inert slow-lifting explosive 3.6 times more powerful than gunpowder and almost twice the explosive power of gun-cotton. It combined the lifting power of gunpowder with the shattering effect of gun cotton. To explode, it was ‘hit’ by a powerful detonation wave, usually provided by guncotton primers.

In May 1916 Major T.W. Edgeworth David, an Australian originally from Wales arrived in France. He was Professor of Geology at Sydney University. Under his direction, thousands of bore holes were made to determine the make-up of the soil along the Front. From these samples maps were coloured to indicate the type of soil below, and what mining activity might take place.

In the month before the start of the Battle of the Somme, in June 1916, along the British front, we fired 101 mines or camouflets and the Germans 126. One mine every three hours. At the beginning of the Somme offensive, the British detonated 19 mines including two that contained 24 tons of explosives. The mines prepared consisted of eight large and eleven small charges detonated on the morning of 1 July 1916. Their joint explosion ranks among the largest non-nuclear explosions.

THE BIG BANG: Hawthorn Ridge and German Redoubt: 252 Tunnelling Company

British troops running along the lip of the Lochnagar mine crater at La Boisselle, 23rd October 1916. By Ernest Brooks

British troops running along the lip of the Lochnagar mine crater at La Boisselle, 23rd October 1916. By Ernest Brooks

The Lochnagar and Hawthorn Ridge mines were the largest, when they exploded it was considered the loudest man-made noise in history. Reports suggested the sound was heard in London and beyond. The Hawthorn Crater was the first to be blown that day, at 07.20 – eight minutes before any of the other 16. The resultant crater was 40ft deep and 300ft wide.

Many will have seen the newsreel shots of the huge mine set off under the German strongpoint. The mine under Hawthorn Redoubt was dug by 252 Tunnelling Company. It had taken seven months: 75ft deep and 333 yards long and prepared with an ammonal charge of 18 imperial tons.

The hard chalk and the number of flints made it hard going. In order to work silently, the face had to be softened with water. You couldn’t use a pickaxe for fear of the noise; the miners prised out the flints with a bayonet.

© IWM (Q 1527) Hawthorn Crater photographed by Ernest Brooks

© IWM (Q 1527) Hawthorn Crater photographed by Ernest Brooks

“When a large mine was detonated, there was no immediate explosive boom, just a deep, almost inaudible rumble, followed by a pause. Even the officers would be uncertain as to whether the mine had exploded.

Seconds later the earth above the charge literally stood up, the pressure from the expanding gases from the mine chamber pushing all above it upwards and outwards … In such an explosion, as the earth is pushed up, the restrictive pressure on the superheated and confined gases diminishes, allowing the gas to expand, accelerating upwards and outwards.

The fractured earth increasingly expands, pushed out by the rapidly expanding gas. A dome of earth forms, and, as it grows, it starts to dissolve – almost gracefully – into a massive three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The gas and vapour at the core is suddenly free to escape … As it does, it reacts with oxygen and ignites. The inside of the dome appears to explode for a second time as flames blast … Jets of white and red-hot flame and vapour further propel the earth in all directions … the mass of earth collapses back on itself in a chaotic jumble …”

Imagine how much worse it was from the enemy trenches. Account of an anonymous German Officer, 119th Reserve Regiment Hawthorn Ridge from The Somme by Peter Hart

“There was a terrific explosion which for the moment completely drowned the thunder of artillery. A great cloud of smoke rose from the trenches of 9 Company, followed by a tremendous shower of stones, which seemed to fall from the sky over our position. More than three sections of 9 Company were blown into the air, and the neighbouring dugouts were blown in and blocked. The ground all around was white with the debris of chalk, as if it had been snowing, and a gigantic crater over 50 yards in diameter and some 60ft deep gaped like an open would on the side of the hill.”

© IWM (Q 112871) Malins with his camera

© IWM (Q 112871) Malins with his camera

The explosion was captured by Geoffrey Malins for the very popular film ‘The Battle of the Somme.’ For the pinnacle of the footage, “He found a new place for his camera on the side of a small bank and pointed his lens towards Hawthorn Redoubt which was due to be exploded.” Whenever the Somme offensive is discussed his explosive footage is shown.

Malins said “The ground where I stood gave a mighty convulsion. It rocked and swayed. I gripped hold of my tripod to steady myself. Then, for all the world like a gigantic sponge, the earth rose high in the air to the height of hundreds of feet. Higher and higher it rose, and with a horrible grinding roar the earth settles back upon itself, leaving in its place a mountain of smoke.” Malins published How I Filmed the War. The book describes the dangerous conditions under which he worked.

Malins was not alone in spotting the photogenic moment. Ernest Brooks was the first official still photographer to be appointed and the only professional to cover the Battle of the Somme. He also recorded the attack from the front-line trenches near Beaumont Hamel. Brooks was the longest-serving war photographer and took more than 4,400 images – more than 10% of all the official photographs. A large collection is now held by the Imperial War Museum,

BACK TO THE TUNNEL AT THE BOG IN SHROPSHIRE

This little review began by citing Trafalgar Square and Waterloo Station. Even if the Somme Tunnel were named in anticipation of a British military triumph, today we know it is hopelessly inappropriate. The first day was “the worst day in the history of the British army, with 57,470 casualties.” On all sides more than a million men were killed or wounded – making it one of the bloodiest battles in history.

Shropshire Mines Ltd found no new sources of minerals from their explorations at The Bog. I have also wondered amongst those “coal, tin and slate miners, some over 60 years old,” whether there may have been men from Snailbeach. Even if this were not so, let us now treat The Somme Tunnel as a fitting memorial to the brave men of the Royal Engineers Tunnelling Companies.

By Keith Pybus