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

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The War Underground 1914-18: Tactics and Equipment

This Book Can Be Ordered HERE

By Simon Jones. 

Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2024

Reviewed by David F. Beer

In the stagnant, troglodyte existence of trench warfare, military mining was a hidden world of heroism and terror…

This short (64 pages) book is typical of the excellent material presented by Osprey in its superbly illustrated series on World War One. Underground warfare was not new with the Great War: tunneling and mining underneath the enemy’s positions had been used long before this conflict, and notably in the American Civil War. Commercial mining to extract coal and other materials from beneath the earth had existed for centuries. With the development of extensive trench warfare in 1914–1915, it was to be expected that tunneling underneath enemy positions and planting explosives would take place. Soon that practice would evolve to a new level of complexity:

…three centuries of experience had established the science of military mining as an integral part of siege warfare. In terms of tactics, technical details of calculations of size and depth of charges, equipment and requirements of personnel, military mining was the subject of detailed manuals and courses of instruction (p. 4). 

You will find the book easy to follow. It’s organized into chapters by year at first, showing tunnel warfare from before 1914 to 1918. Then follow chapters on Underground Warfare and Technology, Mining on the Italian Front, and Dugouts, Shelters, and Attack Tunnels. Along the way some attention is given to mining on the Gallipoli peninsula. We also learn that German and French mining and listening techniques were often more successful than British ones.

Entrance to German Tunnel, Éparges, St. Mihiel Sector

Almost unimaginable dangers faced soldier tunnelers from all sides as they went about their work. The author consistently reminds us of claustrophobia, asphyxiation, tunnel collapse, entombment, accidental explosions, plus the dangers of running into the enemy underground and the resulting hand-to-hand fighting. Even enlisted professional miners were surprised by the dangers of carbon monoxide produced by underground explosions:

This gas, colorless and odorless, soon became the most frequent killer underground …it remained trapped underground when repeated explosions left terrain ‘gas-logged’, liable to be released if broken into or when atmospheric pressure lowered. Time and again, men descended underground to rescue a comrade who had collapsed, only to succumb themselves (p. 48).

We often think of the tunnels being burrowed by hapless underground laborers claustrophobically crouched while picking away at dirt and rock. Much of this occurred, of course, but as Jones shows in his chapter “Underground Warfare and Technology” (pp. 40-50), an amazing variety of devices were soon employed by all sides of the conflict. Numerous applications are described and illustrated, including boring machines, compressors, jackhammer drills, compressed-air drills, and various listening techniques. Ventilation was improved with the use of hand-operated blacksmith-type bellows and powered fans. Nothing was without its risks, however. I spent some time trying to analyze the expression on the face of an Italian miner sitting in a tunnel on boxes of dynamite while holding detonating cables next to a naked-flame carbide lamp (p. 55).

Inside a French Tunnel, Vaquois, Argonne Sector

The book concludes appropriately with the author’s tribute to the courage of these miners:

Long accustomed to working in constant danger and to trusting their mates with their lives, they fought their private war by hand, by machinery, or by enduring hours of silent listening. Their deaths came from poisoning by mine gas or burial forever from sudden explosions deep beneath the ground (p. 62).

Many years ago I was captivated by Sebastian Faulks's novel Birdsong, where much of the drama and tragedy takes place beneath the trenches. The War Underground has now filled in a lot of blanks for me on another scale—that of the equipment, technology, and tactics that were all part of this "troglodyte" warfare. I strongly recommend this book by Simon Jones and strikingly illustrated by Adam Hook to anyone wishing to get a full picture of all that went on in the underground war of 1914–1918.

David F. Beer

1 comment:

  1. My great-uncle, Arthur Dean MC and bar, (later Sir Arthur) was a tunnelling officer with the Royal Engineers during WW1. He had earned a degree in mining engineering from Imperial College, London, before the war. Correspondence that I had some years ago suggested that he was possibly the officer who detonated the Hawthorn mine on 1st July 1916. He was one of the few Great War veterans that I spoke to. He said that he was once ordered to lead his men over the top in an infantry operation; I remember that he said "I wasn't keen - but I went!" - with the magnificent understatement of his generation. It wasn't until his funeral in 1976, when I was 17 and he would have been 84, that I learned that he had the MC, and it wasn't until I acquired the internet 30 years later that I found that it was an MC and bar. The first of those awards was for rescuing one of his men in a tunnel collapse.