Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Remembering a Veteran: Sapper William Hackett, VC


William Hackett, VC

On the morning of 22 June 1916, Sapper William Hackett and four other miners of 254 Tunnelling Company were driving a tunnel toward the enemy lines below the cratered surface of the Givenchy sector of northern France near Vimy Ridge. At about one-quarter of the way toward the German trenches at a depth of about 35 feet, the timbered gallery 4’3” high by 2’6” wide was still in the early stages of development; it was served by a single shaft – the Shaftesbury Shaft. At 2:50 a.m. the explosion of a heavy German mine (the Red Dragon) blew in 25 feet of the tunnel, cutting the five men off from the shaft and safety. On the surface, a rescue party was immediately organized. After two days of digging an escape hole was formed through the fallen earth and broken timbers, and the tunnelers contacted. William Hackett helped three men to safety. 

However, with sanctuary beckoning, and although himself apparently unhurt, he refused to leave until the last man, seriously injured 22-year-old Thomas Collins of the Swansea Pals (14th Battalion, the Welsh Regiment), was rescued. His words were said to be “I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first." The rescuers worked on but were frequently immobilized by German shelling and mortaring of the shaft-head. Conditions above and below ground became more treacherous by the minute. Eventually the gallery collapsed again, entombing the two men. Both still lie beneath the fields of Givenchy today. Figure 1, to the right, shows an overlay of a contemporary aerial photograph and trench map, showing the Givenchy crater field formed by intensive underground warfare, the British and German trenches, the location of the Shaftesbury Shaft that served the tunnel in which William Hackett and his colleagues were working, the German mine crater (Red Dragon) that caused their gallery to fail, and the site of the memorial.


Memorial to William Hackett & WWI Tunnelling Companies at Givenchy
(Dedicated 2010)

For his act of selfless valor William Hackett was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross — the only such decoration ever to be bestowed upon a Tunneller. He is remembered in perpetuity on Panel 1 of the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing near Armentières while Thomas Collins’s name appears on the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme. Why two men who died together and still lie together are not commemorated in the same place is unknown.

Source:  The Tunnellers' Memorial, Givenchy Website

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