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THE ROAD TO WAR -
Kent
 
“Clay Kickers” Dig the Somme & Messines Mine Tunnels
 
The Germans held the high ground directly in front of the British and French front lines on many parts of the Somme. Part of this was nicknamed by the British as “Mash Valley”, which lay between the main Albert to Bapaume road, and all along the Tara-Usna line and ran for many miles along the main front line.
They had an exceptionally good advantage and ideally positioned with a clear view right across the valley as they could see for miles. They also held many strong points, bunkers and strategic positions on the ridges that overlooked this distant area. Their positions showered down incessant artillery and machine-gun fire on the British infantry far below in the trenches, holding those on lower slopes to ransom or death. They were prepared, ready and waiting to wipe out thousands of British and Commonwealth, French and Belgian infantry troops that they knew would soon advance upon them. They realized that soon there was to become a major offensive against them!
Both front lines was on a 24 hour vigil, especially at night, in case of a suspected attack by the enemy would prevail, hence both sides used Verey (very) lights / flares which when fired would light up the whole of the surrounding area …as daylight, to see if the enemy was making a night time attack on them.

In some places the opposing forces were only between 500 - 800 or more yards apart, so easy targets for each side by using snipers with rifles, using their trench periscopes they could see each other very clearly and pick their target.
The German and British Armies had already used underground technology and miners to dig tunnels to blow small mines under each other’s main positions since the early beginnings of the war, these had been sometimes successful, but far larger mines were planned for the bigger offensives to come. Initially hundreds of miners had already been recruited into the British Army in 1914,
View of the Tara-Usna line,across from
“Mash Valley” to near-by German positions
(2013 C/R-I.R. Bridle)
as well as in the German Army, as both opposing forces soon realized that the advantages of this newly conceived “Underground Warfare” in which tens of thousands could be killed in massive explosions, rather than lose valuable soldiers facing enemy machine – gun and artillery fire. The massive tasks involved in digging these tunnels literally employed tens of thousands of men to accomplish this specially assigned work who would soon arrive from distant shores to the Western Front. It would take many months of weary tiring, back breaking and sweating work. These men were exceptionally hard working, brave and devoted to their occupation, as difficult and tiresome as it became. Many more thousands of British and Commonwealth miners were soon to follow, as these would be the ones to dig miles of underground tunnels from the British lines directly under the German strong points, at the appointed places directed by High Command. These mines were planned to be blown prior to a major infantry attack. The British Generals still firmly believed that all the Germans would be dead, once the huge detonation by the mines had been blown, coupled with the preceding one week long barrage of British and French artillery guns along the Somme front line.
By early 1916, over 25, 000 miners from Britain and the Commonwealth, Australia and Canada had been employed. Each crew worked 8 hour shifts, as the tunnel progressed farther along, they would have to walk this distance from the entrance to the clay face to start digging again where the previous crews left off, which could be anything up hundreds, then thousands of yards, then many miles, until they reached their final destination where the chamber holding the colossal amounts of explosives would eventually be stored, right under the designated German strong points. The very long and arduous digging was to take many months of weary tiring and sweating work, these men were exceptionally hard working, brave and devoted to their work, as difficult and tiresome as it became.
The first examples of the planned massive mine explosions under the enemy lines was desperately hoped it would accomplish the desired effect, possibly by destroying the enemy and bring the War to an end, at least in their naïve thinking this is what they firmly believed and trusted in. So three top priority and major targets were chosen by the British High Command. There were a total of 8 large mines and eleven smaller ones planned, that would all be detonated at the same time, primed and ready to be blown on the morning of 1st July 1916, just before the “Battle of the Somme” offensive started. This every effort was to destroy the German barbed wire defenses, fortified positions and artillery guns....and kill all the enemy!
Firstly the tunnel entrance would have to be dug down to an angled depth of about 60feet/20mts for the steps / stairs to be supported and constructed, depending on the soil/ sand / clay conditions, or they may have to dig much deeper until finding solid enough ground. The solid wood entrance to support it and the stairs were installed, then they would branch out on a straight level in the direction designated, digging further towards the plotted firing chamber. It was necessary to move the hundreds of tons of spoiled earth out of every tunnel by wheelbarrow, or big steel barrows on rails as used in coal mines, then hauled in buckets or bags up the stairs and distributed along the front lines. The walls and floor had to be shored up with thick oak posts and wooden planks to hold up the intense weight and to prevent cave-ins occurring and in weaker areas iron girders were placed in weaker positions
 
When there was a cave-in, and there were many serious issues to confront, they would all be blocked off from the tunnel entrance usually due to a sand barrier or the weeks of heavy rain soaking down through the soil and weakening the earth above them and flooding the tunnel. It had to be shored up and the water manually pumped out exceptionally fast, then duck boards placed on the floor of the tunnel to keep the soldier’s feet as dry as possible. Many would suffer an agonizing death by being buried alive or drowned as hundreds of men were killed and injured due to the severity of the cave-ins and potentially hazardous conditions. It could take up to 12 hours or longer to get each injured man on a stretcher, or dragged back by hand to the entrance of the tunnel for medical assistance, then transported to the base hospital for treatment….many, many never made it! But the miners: the newly nick- named “Clay Kickers” that had a technique all of their own, it was an incredibly fast and very effective, they sat on a wooden type angled chair and partly laid back on a cross piece of wood, the spade was fitted into a wooden frame, and using their leg’s would push the spade into the clay with their feet, which would be dug out in large amounts ready to be barrowed away. A canary in a cage was always taken down with them as used in coal mines to detect any harmful gases that could build-up, or attempts by the Germans to use poison gas on them.
Each “Clay Kicker” was paid 6/- a day, a fortune in those days, for their very long tiring hours of extreme hard manual labour.
“Clay-Kickers” digging a tunnel
“Clay-Kickers” digging a tunnel, and artists impressions of the “Special Chair” apparatus they used, which proved fast and efficient.
 

Once these tired weary men had completed their shift they would have to walk all the miles back, then up the steps out into the fresh air, they then had to run the gauntlet of German artillery and machine-gun fire as they rushed back to the rear trenches, for food, rest and a long awaited sleep.
 
Work had started many months before on the three tunnels that were to blow the three mines around La Boisselle, one mine in particular, was named Lochnagar by the 51st Highland Division, who had held the line previously and called their own trench, by the same name, hence the crater was later named. The next part of this backbreaking work for this one mine alone was that the soldiers had to convey the nearly 60, 000lbs (25 tons) of high-explosive gun-cotton to the end of the tunnel in the detonation chamber at La Boisselle and place them accordingly, two charges were placed at 60ft apart and approximately 50ft from the surface.
The tunnels were supposed to be “top secret” whilst being dug and under construction, but it was found that in some cases as both the British and German tunnels suddenly converged and were so close together, as the British were digging towards the German lines, and the German were heading for the British strong points, they could hear the men talking and spades digging the hard clay. Both sides would use many different listening devices, like a long hollow copper tube with a bell shaped end fitted in the ear, or a doctor’s stethoscope, also electronic devices. They could then hear if the enemy was digging close by or not. Even a sneeze or cough could be heard many dozens of yards away by the enemy, the men were ordered to "Keep Quiet" as they got nearer their final objective. If they heard any noise or inclination of being so close to the enemy…all work and noise would “Stop” …they just had to wait and listen… as all the men waited in fear that the enemy from either side would suddenly break through into their tunnels...then all "Hell" would erupt against each other!
On many occasions they would suddenly break through into each other’s tunnels, hurl grenades through the gap wait for the explosion, then dozens of men poured through shooting at everyone. In these bloody underground battles soldiers would fight in any brutal way possible with bayonets, knives, spades (one side sharpened like a razor, which would cut a man’s neck down to his chest in one blow) knuckle dusters were used or any implement that could be grabbed quickly, with the eventuality using their own fists to kill the enemy, they were so vicious that these could carry on for a long time until all the enemy on either side were dead or taken as prisoners.
This huge amount of explosive would usually come in 25 lb bags, for this mine alone at Lochnagar, it would take a total 2, 400 x 25lb bags, which needed to be carefully hauled down the steep shafts and along the thousands of yards/ miles to the end of the tunnel by wheelbarrow, coal trucks on rails, or carried by hand. Once all the bags were in position the Royal Engineers took control, confirming that main connections, electronic devices for the detonation were complete, they then ran the firing cables all the way back to the British lines. All was secured, then in the safety of the firing bunker sat and waited for the final signal to press the plunger…and send the enemy to “Hell”
After the seven day continues bombardment of the German front lines on the Somme, the day came when the mines would be finally blown. On the sunny morning of 1st July, 1916, this mine at Lochnagar was detonated at 07.28 a.m. in the morning, shaking the earth for miles. The terrific blast roared upwards destroying some of the enemy’s deep defences and strong points. The truth of the massive mines being blown was soon evident, which stunned the High Command watching a mile or so behind the front line, for they were the ones who declared initially to all the men that “All the enemy would be destroyed”. The final detonation of the mines succeeded in killing thousands of Germans, but their very well built deep underground dugouts all along the front line were unaffected by the explosion, therefore giving valuable time for the Germans to reach the top and set-up their machine guns, in and around the crater itself…and wait for the enemy, who they knew would soon advance upon them!
As the many thousands of first line of British infantry troops advanced, and within only minutes after “going over the top” the enemy opened fire on the casually walking men before them. They were cruelly massacred, horrifically wounded by the German machine-gunners and artillery fire. It had actually failed in part in destroying the barbed wire defences running hundreds of yards deep, this is what the Generals had hoped for in the seven day bombardment, but despite the amount of worked entailed with the artillery barrage and to create these fearsome underground explosions, the eventual disappointment as the day progressed, was that they faced an horrendous defeat, then soon to hear of the tremendous losses encountered to the British Army in just a few hours... was horrific!
Although a massacre followed for the British and Allied forces, after many ferocious battles that day, only a few enemy front line defences fell into British hands, but hundreds of seriously injured British soldiers shot and wounded by shrapnel and machine-gun fire, found cover in the crater holes, hundreds if not thousands bled to death before they could be rescued in agony from head, chest, stomach and leg wounds, as the days passed after the British had secured the front line a priest was called to perform burial rites on those dead and dying….Who were Many!
 
Lochnagar Crater - Blown on 1st July1916, it is estimated that over 10, 000 Germans were killed in this explosion alone. The blast was so loud it was heard in Southern England, to show how deep this crater is, can you see the poppy wreath at the bottom center right hand image? (C/R Ian .R.Bridle)
 
 
“Hawthorn Crater” taken in 2013, where the trees are in the distance.
This image above is near to where the original cameraman actually filmed it in 1916 (C/R- www.edenbridgetown.com)
(Left and Bottom)
Taken from the original movie film of the explosion on 1st July, 1916
 
Hawthorn Ridge Crater was to be the only one filmed by British Army cameramen during the “Great War”, and is the one screened in films on television depicting the actual eruption and destruction it caused.
(Above ) Image taken from the crater edge looking towards the British lines, the cross is where the camera-men filmed it in 1916 exploding!(C/R-I R BRIDLE)
 
The ceremony I attended in 1999 was in Remembrance of all those killed on the Somme and to all those killed in “The Great War” but more so to…
 

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing
(C/Right - I.R. Bridle)

 
Private George Nugent …1306…22nd Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, missing in action since 1st July1916, but 83 years later his body was found under the earth alongside the crater rim, by a man walking his dog.
For all those years his body was lost to his beloved family who had no place of burial to visit, like the other tens of thousands missing in action.
But now he lies buried with his friends, comrades and fellow soldiers in a local cemetery.
It was indeed, a very moving service, tears were shed by many, sadness was in their eyes for all those lost in death, only to be Remembered by a Gravestone or a Memorial.
But to those German and British soldiers who were tragically “blown to pieces” by this explosion and the enemy shelling… Have no known grave.
Today this crater…still named Lochnagar...is privately owned, it was purchased in 1979 by Mr Richard Dunning of England, and remains…Thanks to Him and his Faithful Friends, a permanent memorial, a tribute, and a memory to the thousands who lie asleep in death under the clear blue skies of France that were killed here.
The tens of thousands of British and Commonwealth troops who were killed all along this part of the front line are remembered at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, just a few kilometers away, close by this crater, with over
73, 412 names engraved on its walls who were killed in 1916 – 1917, and just behind this is the cemetery with equal numbers as above of British and French soldiers, a near total of well over 145, 000…Missing with No Known Grave…their bodies were never found…!
 
Tens of thousands of their loved ones travelled here to find the graves after “The Great War” had concluded, for those they had lost, always searching, looking in despair and desperation for the “Loved Ones” that said Goodbye to them months or years before. From all nations they came to try at whatever the cost to find them and ask...”Where is My Boy Buried?”
They were frantic in their exploration to find their loved ones, many killed in this “Great War” had no known graves, not until years/ many years later did some …at last find and to stand and look down on the cold stone cross, marble plaque and see their Sons, Fathers, Brothers name...etched in stone, their grave where they now lie...under the skies of France & Belgium. Their heart’s full of tears, their dreams lost, their hopes gone forever that they would see these precious ones again...They proudly left flowers and a prayer, wiped their eyes and said with the deepest grief in their Heart & Soul…Goodbye!
 
Messines Ridge Mines!
 
The Germans held many strategic high points which had been fought and won in earlier battles they ran in a large arc right in front of the British lines. It was these that the British wanted back to give them the edge for once over the enemy. Many battles continued to be fought all along the front line in a hope to regain these lost positions, with a fast growing casualty list of thousands being killed on both sides every day.
Early in December 1914, the Messiness Ridge was captured and under German control, they established it as a strategic observation and command post, it overlooked the valley giving an excellent view towards the Ypres Salient, where all military enemy activity could be clearly seen.
Operations were put into action to plant twenty-four mines underneath the German held front line and explode them all in unison, in the hope of a total destruction of all the enemy held positions. This massive task was undeniably dangerous and time consuming, but never the less the plans for the tunnels were drawn up, and work soon began.
Preparations were under way to try and regain the summit for the British, it took nearly two years of backbreaking work by over 10, 000 men from the British, Australian, and Canadian Tunneling Companies to achieve. This in itself was a major achievement like the many other tunnels that were dug.
 

Major John D. Norton Griffiths The Major
touring the battlefields in his Rolls-Royce.
 
Major John D. Norton Griffiths took charge of the tunneling companies involved in the area of Hill 60, he was a brilliant officer and an eccentric character as he drove around the battlefields in his own military equipped Rolls-Royce, too much amusement from the soldiers.
During February 1915, the Special Mining Squads were relatively rare and in the process of being formed up into Tunneling Companies, in April they were amalgamated and reinforced by new recruits to make up a new 171st Tunneling Company.
The 171st would eventually be one of many Tunneling Companies recruited here as “Clay Kickers”…The names of a few of the men that dug these vast tunnels were…Fred Francis, Bert Ferns, George Louth, Albert Marshall, Ted Rimmer, Donald Hodge, John Laiser, and Captain Norman Dillon, forming the 170th, 172nd, 178th Tunneling Companies.
This area was notorious for the different layers of earth, on top was loam, underneath was over 20feet/ 7metres of firm dry sand which separated the hard blue clay, below that was 7feet/ 2metres of quicksand, in all it would be very difficult and dangerous for the Tunneling Companies who were about to start the tunnels in that area, digging towards the German lines.
As early as August 1915, plans were already underway to dig the many underground tunnels towards Messines-Wytschaete Ridge in Belgium, which formed a large arc from Hill 60 to the east of Ploegsteert Wood.
The deep mining for the two tunnels, and mines to be laid began in August 1915 they were about 250 yards behind the British frontline. This was carried out by the 175th Tunneling Company, from an entrance by the railway cutting on Hill 60. These two tunnels were dug to a depth of 90ft / 30metres from the surface.
 
In April 1916, the 3rd Canadian Tunneling Company took over, and by July 1916 the massive gallery was finished under Hill 60. The high explosive consisted of a total of 53, 500lb, which meant that 2, 140 x 25lb bags would have to be transported along the tunnel to the chamber and prepared.
 

Hill 60 after the mine was blown and re-captured(C/R-I. R Bridle)
 
In October 1916, another gallery was completed under the Caterpillar as it was named, and 70, 000lb consisting of 2, 800 x 25lb bags of high explosive charges was placed in position, that too was prepared and ready to blow.
By November 1916, the 1st Australian Tunneling Company continued with the upkeep of the mine, but endless above and underground fighting continued, every effort was made to stop the Germans discovering the two mines already placed there.
These two mines were the most northerly of the planned chain of 24 mines that were being dug in different places by the British, all to be detonated at once all the way along right up to Messines Ridge.
All the mines along the line had been dug and the tens of thousands of high explosives bags of charges loaded in place, the detonators had been fixed, the firing cables run far back down the miles of tunnels to the Command Posts. Everything was planned for the attack, the infantry stood by, the artillery guns loaded, all waited in anticipation …for the signal to “Blow”.
 
At 03.10am precisely on 7th June 1917, the plunger was pressed and a series of tremendous explosions all along the German front line erupted and rocked the earth for miles just like an earthquake, the shock was so tremendous that it was felt in southern England!

(Left) Hill 60 after the mine was blown and re-captured(C/R-I. R Bridle)
 
Immediately the mines blew and before the dust settled, the entire might of the Second Armies two thousand artillery guns opened fire on the German lines in a three pronged barrage, pounding the enemy and earth into an unrecognizable crater filled moonscape!
As nine Divisions of infantry moved towards the blown craters they found thousands of Germans had been killed outright, hundreds of others were so stunned they were taken prisoner, many German strong points were taken after fierce fighting along the line of the exploding mines. Finally Messines Ridge was back in British hands. (Only nineteen of the twenty four mines placed actually exploded)
At the other end of the chain, the British finally regained Hill 60 after a successful infantry attack by the 69th and 70th Yorkshire Battalion Division, their attack had very few casualties.
After the two massive explosions the Hill 60 crater was vast being 60ft deep and 260ft wide, the Caterpillar crater was even bigger at 90ft deep and a 334ft wide.
 
The 204th German Division who held the hill, had 10 officers and 677 men killed in the blast.
During the storming of Hill 60 after it had blown, many awards were given out for gallantry.
Messines Ridge after the battle and was re-captured
 
Four of the most highly prestigious… Victoria Cross …were awarded “For Conspicuous Bravery & Valour” to…
 
  • Lieutenant G.R.P. Roupell of the 1st Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment
 
  • Private E. Dwyer of the 1st Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment
 
  • Second Lieutenant G.H. Woolley of the 9th Battalion London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles)
 
  • Second Lieutenant B.H. Geary attached to the 1st Battalion of The East Surrey Regiment.
Painstaking as they were to dig, and horrific in their destruction, they seemed to do the job of killing the enemy and gain control of vantage points in the necessity to try and bring this war to an end, much to the delight of the Generals and High Command who were always determined to push, push forwards despite the terrible losses!
Even today you can follow the line of the nineteen mines that were blown in the big arc, most are small others far bigger, now mostly are ponds full of water and used by farmers.
St Eloi is remembered for being the place where the very first mine of the “Great War” was blown by the Germans in March 1915, this part of the front line was constantly being attacked and counter attacked, taken and retaken many times, with very heavy losses, so the necessary planning to use mines here was employed.
During the next 12 months the British blew 13 mines and 29 Camouflet’s, the Germans blew 20 mines and 2 Camouflet’s on different occasions under each other’s opposing front lines and strong positions, causing much destruction with many being killed on both sides.
Six British mines were detonated here on 27th March 1916, under the German front line, consisting of a total of
73, 000lbs of high-explosives, nearly 3, 000 x 25 lb bags, which were hauled along the tunnels to the detonation chamber.

During the massive combined mine explosions that heralded the Messines Ridge artillery and infantry attack, one of three mines to be blown here was the largest of all.
The total amount was a massive 95, 600lbs of ammonal, which comprised of 3, 864 x 25lb bags of the high explosive, these bags had to be transferred along the underground tunnel to the detonation chamber, and as can be imagined a phenomenal amount of manpower was necessary to accomplish this task.
This crater after the detonation was one of the biggest seen on the Western Front.
Of the twenty-four mines dug and tunneled to lay the massive amount of ammonal charges, it is estimated that just over 1, 000, 000lbs, of high explosives were used. Which amounted to a colossal 40, 000 x 25lb bags, that had to be transported to the entrance of each tunnel, by hand, horse and carts, then barrowed along hundreds of yards if not miles to the detonation chambers.
It is estimated that during the “blowing” of the nineteen mines along the front line towards Messines Ridge that approximately 25, 000 Germans were killed.
Some of the other mines that were blown all along the front line at different times were named by the British as… Tree Crater, Caterpillar Crater, Hooge Crater, Maedelstede Farm Crater, High Wood Crater, Battle Wood Crater (there are a few in the woods here from the 1915-1916 explosions) St Eloi Crater, to name but a few.
All over the battlefields you can see large and small crater holes where hundreds of mines were blown both by the British and Germans since the near outset of the start of “The Great War” in 1914.
   
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