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

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The First Mines of the War Were On the Western Front.

Mine Explosion in the Champagne

The practice of setting off mines underneath enemy lines in hope of breaking through their position preceded the Great War. The Petersburg Mine in the American Civil War is an example that most of our readers will be familiar with, but attacking fortified positions by driving tunnels was frequently practiced in antiquity. In olden days the collapse was triggered by setting fire to supporting timbers. When they collapsed, so did the tunnel. The tactic was "modernized" in the 15th century, when exploding gunpowder replaced the burning of the supports to bring down the tunnel and the position above ground. In late 1914, the Western Front stabilized, and it became the location of the war's earliest mines.

Simon Jones, in his 2010 work Underground Warfare, 1914–1918, points out that even as the Race to the Sea was proceeding, commanders on both sides were ordering their engineers to dig saps and place explosives under enemy positions. He includes two noteworthy examples by the German Army that led to a local success in the first case and a substantial breakthrough in the second. Both also triggered responses by the Allies.

On 13 November. in the Argonne Forest, the 30th Rhineland pioneers blew a 20-foot-wide crater in the French line and followed up with a successful attack by infantry and engineers. The attack penetrated the French line several hundred meters, driving off the defenders and allowing the attackers time to dig in against counterattacks. The French, who had already started their own digging in the sector, soon responded in kind, and the Argonne became an extremely active mining sector through the 1916 Battle of Verdun.

Another Argonne Mining Site Near Haute Chevauchée Road

The Germans fired ten mines on 20 December 1914 at Festubert in the Artois. Exploded along a 1,000-yard front under an area held by the Indian Corps of the BEF, they were collectively devastating. The Germans captured the first two lines of trenches before being being halted by machine gun fire from the flanks. The new occupants repulsed a series of counterattacks. Mining had "moved the line." German claims of having taken over 800 prisoners and killing thousands of the defenders are thought to be exaggerated, but no other statistics are available from British sources. However, the attack definitely had caught the defenders flat-footed to the degree it thoroughly alarmed General French and his staff. They became much more serious about mine warfare thereafter.

Source: Underground Warfare, 1914–1918 

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