Of all the duties soldiers performed on the Western Front, mining was probably the most terrifying and lethal. The author has brought to life this subterranean existence. The text is very descriptive and captures the dangers and terrors underground, aided by a photo plate section with rare photographs, and a host of detailed drawings that explain the technology and methods employed to construct the networks of tunnels, bunkers and explosive mines. This is an area of combat in France during WWI that has previously received very little coverage despite its growing importance to trench warfare. The author has corrected this deficiency with what may prove the definitive book on the subject. Highly commended!!!
NAME: Underground Warfare 1914-1918
AUTHOR: Simon Jones
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: soft back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWI, World War One, First World War, Great War, Western Front, trench warfare, artillery, mining, counter-mining, miners, explosives
DESCRIPTION: Of all the duties soldiers performed on the Western Front, mining was probably the most terrifying and lethal. The author has brought to life this subterranean existence. The text is very descriptive and captures the dangers and terrors underground, aided by a photo plate section with rare photographs, and a host of detailed drawings that explain the technology and methods employed to construct the networks of tunnels, bunkers and explosive mines. This is an area of combat in France during WWI that has previously received very little coverage despite its growing importance to trench warfare. The author has corrected this deficiency with what may prove the definitive book on the subject. Highly commended!!!
Mining of fortifications has a very long history. Many a Medieval siege was concluded by mining the walls of castles or towns. The miners may have started at ground level, or dug a tunnel, starting at a safe distance and ending under the defensive wall. To bring down the wall, all that was required was the steady digging out of soil and fitting timber supports. Once the cavern had reached thirty to fifty percent of the thickness of the wall or tower, the space was packed with combustible material and the miners ignited this before they left. The fire consumed the timber supports and the wall or tower collapsed, its foundation having been removed. There was little the defenders could do, assuming that they were aware mining had begun. The only counter with any real merit was to send a small force outside the walls to find the entrance and kill the miners, but this had only small prospect of success particularly if the miners had dug a tunnel from their own siege lines.
In WWI, it was a different situation. The trench lines snaked across northern France and across Belgium. In places they were almost within hand grenade range and at other points the no-man’s-land between opposing trenches was measured in hundreds of metres. The early trenches were relatively shallow, not much deeper than the height of a soldier. As the war progressed, the trenches became more sophisticated and extensive. A trench might be more then three metres in depth, with a firing step to allow occupants to sight across to enemy trenches. At intervals, bunkers were built at varying depths to provide protected space for dormitories, store rooms, magazines and hospitals.
From the early impromptu trenches, that were little more than linked foxholes, built by the soldiers to escape machine gun fire, the greater sophistication recognized the static reality of trench warfare. The defensive positions took on a permanence and became home to hundreds of thousands of young men. Until the tank became available in some numbers, there was little prospect of either side being able to break through the opposing line of trenches, which became waterlogged and insanitary, but there was one possible way of breaking an opposing trench. Miners could dig out under no-man’s-land and under the opposing trench. Then they could dig out a cavern that would be filled with high explosives that could be detonated by remote command wire. The largest of these mines produced a spectacular and deadly explosion where hills seem to become airborne, creating a breach in the enemy line through which the infantry could pour with greatly reduced risk.
It might seem a simple matter to dig a tunnel in this way, but the execution of the concept faced many serious threats. Most miners were previously coal, or metal ore, miners in civilian life. That gave them essential skills and a mental attitude to control the terrors of the task. To their skills, technology and supplies must be added to enable them to carry through their dangerous task.
One immediate danger was that the enemy could hear the painstaking progress as miners worked in cramped conditions over weeks or months with pick and shovel, working towards the enemy. As they came closer, counter-miners could pinpoint the position and distance of the enemy mine. They could then dig their own counter mine towards the enemy miners. As they closed on the enemy below non-man’s-land, they had the choice of either laying their own explosives, or dig into the enemy tunnel and attack the tunnellers, hoping to clear the enemy miners and work up the tunnel under the enemy trench, where they might lay their own explosives.
As with any method of warfare, the underground war became a battle of wits and technology, with explosive mines becoming larger. This was a nerve racking fight. Men became trapped underground and died as food, water and air gave out. Death could be slow and painful. It could also be quick as miners dug on, not realizing the enemy had placed explosives next to them. The author has graphically explained the nature of this underground warfare, the people and the technologies involved.