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

Wednesday, April 7, 2021



by Sapper (Herman Cyril McNeile) 

"Twas mentioning to you the other day that I was concerning the difference between them Prussians and the other blackguards in their army — them Saxons and the others." Cassidy carefully adjusted a pillow behind his head, and then gazed reflectively at an extremely vulgar cigarette holder of which he was inordinately proud.

"They are different entirely," he continued, when I had justified my existence, "and it is careful one must be that when they are relieved in their trenches they do not change round. For should one have had those Saxon lads opposite to one for a time, one is apt to be after getting a little gay with them: bits of tobacco and the like are apt to change hands, and one is not above coming out of the trenches to take the air. If that same thing is tried on with the Prussians the result is unhealthy, and it is not twice one does it.

"'Twas only the other day I was hearing from one of the lads, of one of those Saxon regiments occupying a bit of trench opposite us. 'Twas fed up they all were with the mud and the filth, and they knew — both we and they — that there was nothing doing. So gradual like they got a bit free and easy, until one morning the Germans hoisted a deck-chair on to the ground behind their trench.

"'What is it at all they are doing?' said the lads, 'for 'tis a strange place entirely for a deck-chair.' And then they hoisted a white flag, and the lads were all watching, and one of their officers gets out and waves his hand to us. 'Good-morning, Englishmen,' he says, and sits down on the chair. He lights a cigar and starts reading the paper.

"'Well, I'm—' says one of our officers, ''tis a casual blackguard that he is. But he has nerve, and the saints forbid that he should come to harm, for 'tis a man after my own heart that he is.'

"And after a while, our lads and theirs, they all came out and lay on the ground, and 'tis most days they are after doing it. About fifty yards apart they are, and they shout remarks at one another. For, when all is said and done, 'tis of small matter if we kill ten of them and they kill ten of us, as far as the result is concerned. 'Tis just twenty more of the lads gone to the other side, and no good from it at all; and that is all the result one will be after getting, however much one throws bombs and shoots on sight and the like. For in the part of the line where an advance on either side is impossible 'tis silly to sacrifice the lads, and that is where it differed from the Christmas truce. The lads who were hobnobbing there had been fighting the day before, and would be at it again the next — not like the particular Saxon lads of whom I am after telling you. 'Twas a curious thing that happened with them, too, one day, for the Captain was out in his chair, and he was drinking beer, and all the lads were taking it easy like, when one of our guns made a boss shot and put a shell right in the middle of them. 'Twas pure accident, but it killed ten of them.

"'Get back in the trenches,' shouts one of our own officers, for 'twas annoyed he thought they might be. But the German officer did not move. 'Twas his glass he waved friendly like, to show that he understood and bore no ill feeling, and all went on as before."

Now, as I have mentioned, I have known Sergeant Cassidy for many years, and I have a very high regard for his many sterling qualities; but I am free to confess that I looked at him a trifle hard as I again replenished his cigarette holder. It struck me that the story had just a shade too much Ballygoyle flavour in it. For the benefit of those unacquainted with his history, I may mention that it was in the aforesaid hamlet in Erin that he first saw light, and his stories in connection with it put Baron Munchausen to utter rout.

"Is it deceiving you I would be, sir!" he cried with dignity. "'Tis perhaps a little free and easy like in the telling that I was, but 'tis true every word of it. For is it a shell more or less that would be after making one annoyed over yonder, when one has been where they are like bees when they are swarming? And you will mind another thing, sir. When one has a long line like what we have yonder, the healthiness of it varies from mile to mile as a place of residence. There are bits of it which are of no use to man or beast, and there are others which are important; but 'tis held it must all be. Then there are bits which are easy to hold, and bits which are not. If you find yourself in a bit of flat country, with the Germans fifty yards away, and a barbed-wire factory in between, 'tis at a standstill you both are. There is nothing doing either way, and 'tis of little use trying to do it. And in those parts of the line where there is nothing of importance behind the other devils, such as a big railway junction or the like, 'tis stopped the fighting that they have. They just sit there and watch one another; and as I was saying in the story I was telling you, and which you was after doubting" — Cassidy fixed me with a stern eye — "they see the folly of killing when 'tis no gain to either side that it will be.

"There are, of course, the other places, where by the nature of the ground one side or the other find it difficult to hold, or 'tis important to get a bit of a hill or the like; and there they are at it all day long and all night too for the matter of that. Mining they are and sapping, and the like, and it is not I that need be telling you what that means."

But here, for the benefit of the uninitiated, I will interrupt the thread of my old friend Cassidy's discourse. For in this warfare of moles every idea and rule of fighting — the ABC of it one might say, has been changed from what one was taught. And it is possible that to some people sapping and mining may be but terms vaguely associated with picks and shovels and explosions which occur periodically in the bowels of the earth. At the risk, therefore, of boring those who know, I will try and give briefly an idea of what really happens.

Originally, then, before the Huns hunned, that particular operation known as "sapping and mining" was associated with fortress warfare. Having found your fortress, you next proceeded to sit and look at it, from a trench and a safe distance. When you got tired of this interesting pastime, and were able to sit up and take nourishment again and all that sort of thing, you crept out into the dark and stilly night, and dug another trench a bit nearer the fortress. By dawn, when those unfortunates who had received the next man's pick through their foot, had been removed to the nearest clearing hospital, you were all safely ensconced two or three hundred yards nearer home.

However, as frequently occurred, the owners of the fortress refused to conform to the rules, and insisted on directing the vulgar glare of publicity, in the shape of a searchlight, on the lads as they indulged in their nightly pastime. A tendency to open fire with maxims and other unpleasant instruments rendered it impossible for the men to do themselves justice, and other methods had to be resorted to — the first of these being known as "sapping." Now to sap is a tedious operation, as only one man can work on the front of each sap at a time. Should anyone doubt me, I would suggest that he digs a hole in his lawn about six feet deep in which he can comfortably stand, and then — never coming nearer to the surface of the ground than that six feet — that he should proceed to hew a passage from the hole to the pigsty or ferret house or some point of notoriety in the neighbourhood. Remember, he must not come to the surface of the ground and dig down. He must go forward, always keeping six feet below the surface, hewing a passage out for himself as he goes.

True, in the trenches there is a waiting domestic to remove the earth to the rear on a silver salver, and other modern improvements laid on, but even so three feet an hour is very good going. There is another point, too, which must not be lost sight of. The average man, if he did dig a hole in the ground, in order to sap to the hennery, and was left at large and so forth, would in all probability go there in a straight line — it being, I believe, one of those great truths to be spoken of in whispers, and discovered by my old friend Euclid, that the shortest distance between two points is the straight line joining them. A point which the dear man overlooked, however, is that a long straight line is a very nice thing for what is known as enfilade fire, and a maxim firing down a communication trench — and that is all a sap is — makes things unhealthy for the users of that same — as Cassidy would say. So saps proceed in a series of zigzags, and by this means you get as near the fortress as possible — putting sandbags filled with earth on the ground in front of you, to protect your head.

When you have got as near as you can, you join the heads of all the saps with another trench, and pause to recover your breath. I am speaking of what we were taught before the war, for nous avons changé tout cela. (Following Cassidy's advice I have been taking French lessons.) Then comes the time when the General sends for the sappers and breaks it to them gently that a little mining would be an interesting form of amusement. When everyone has got over their joy, and written their wills, and finished what was left of the port, they start mining. Now sapping is slow, but it's like an aeroplane and a tortoise compared to mining. In sapping you are up in the air, but in mining you're not. You go down under the ground, and proceed to make a series of mine shafts, starting from the trench you were last in, towards the fortress. As you go along you put in a succession of wooden cases to hold up the sides and top of the gallery, and the earth is taken away to the rear as in sapping. The direction is given by the officers, and though great accuracy is not needed, it is advisable not to go backwards or anything like that, as it tends to make the General unsympathetic.

Let it not be considered that one's troubles are now over. Being people of a cantankerous disposition, the inhabitants of the fortress proceed to countermine — that is, run out mines to meet you. In parenthesis I might say that one's object in mining is that when one has approached the actual fort itself, the mine head is stacked with explosives, and at the crucial moment all the charges in all the mine-heads are fired. When those that feel like it have exploded, any of the assailants who are not stunned by the shock, or killed by the flying bricks, rush forward with a hoarse British cheer and capture the fort. That's the idea, and they're always led by the Senior Sapper Subaltern present, which is very beautiful and all that; but I have always thought personally, being what is described as an interested party, that a stone in one's boot, or a sudden attack of writer's cramp, or something of that sort, would be much more in my line. However, that is neither here nor there, and I'm really quite brave after dinner.

Well, as I was saying, the men in the fort start countermining out to meet you, and their idea is to put little charges in the front of their mines and by exploding them make it impossible for you to work. When you are down there you can hear the tapping of their picks in the distance, but it is almost an impossible thing to tell how far they are away. They tried a big experiment once with some coal miners, to see if by listening they could tell how far off the other man was, but they failed. For if there is a fissure in the soil running parallel with the mine between you and the other lad, he will sound close to, and he may be fifty yards off. And if there's a stratum of some soil more or less impervious to sound perpendicular to you in front of your mine, he may be close, but you will scarcely hear him. It's jumpy work, for you never know but what the other fellow will blow up his mine and do you down.

In this war, however, as far as fortresses are concerned, the necessity for sapping and mining has disappeared. In fact, fortress warfare has disappeared, as it was understood in the past, for no fortress can stand against modern heavy artillery. It is almost unnecessary to have any infantry there — the gunners can do the whole thing, and all the mining and sapping that is done now is done against infantry in their trenches. For it is easy to see that though these heavy guns are the devil when they have a fortress they can't miss, yet against infantry in narrow trenches they have a very different target, and one where they cannot do anything like the same amount of damage. Trench warfare now has become what fortress warfare was in the past — a slow and tedious operation; and just as with a fortress there came a time when further progress was impossible, save under the ground, so now, in those places where fighting continues without cessation, the only method of getting nearer the other trench is by sapping and mining, and the invariable retaliation of countermining.

Of that sapping and mining there are stories to tell.

From: Sergeant Michael Cassidy, R.E.


  1. Excellent excerpt. Love the combination of wry humor with military experience.

  2. When I was a boy, in the 1970s, I discovered a pile of books including some by "Sapper" (Cyril McNeil, he wouldn't admit to the Germanic name) in our loft, and I read them avidly. They were partly responsible for my interest in WW1, along with Biggles. Sadly, I left them in that house when we moved. Sapper was of course a frightful snob; he was most at ease writing about the officers and upper classes, and the working classes were either villains, or subjects to be patronised or sentimentalised, e.g. Cassidy. But Sapper did actually serve in the trenches, as a Royal Engineer, and his stories are authentic at least in terms of their detail and atmosphere.