Guest features explore engineering-related themes, other features appear at the bottom.

Tunnelling in WWI

"Here we are sapping and mining under Fritz’s trenches and he is doing the same under ours and we can hear him quite distinctly by aid of a microphone listener."     Sgt Frederick

Mining as a method of breaking the built defences of an enemy has an ancient heritage. The Egyptians were known to have undermined city walls and the Assyrians had specialised engineering troops in 850BC. Mining became a standard tactic in siege warfare and by the 17th Century designers such a Vauban were including complex counter mining measures into their geometric fortifications.

However, as artillery increased in power, prolonged sieges became a less frequent feature of warfare. That is until the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) gave a precursor of what was to become a common and terrifying element of the First World War.

By the end of 1914, as the opposing forces reached stalemate, the ubiquitous trenches of the Western Front began to emerge. Conditions for viable military mining were born and the lethal work of digging beneath the enemy’s fixed field defences, laying mines and counter mines began.

German Tunnel
A German tunnel

Formation of Royal Engineer (RE) Tunnelling

German Pioneers blew the first mine of the War late in 1914. This new threat from below  caused increased uneasiness in the British Infantry in their nascent trenches. British mining began on a localised level only, with shafts being sunk from front line trenches by RE Field Companies and skilled infantry. However, it was very quickly apparent that a more organised approach was the only way of ensuring schemes of sustainable defensive mining to counter the German threat.

As with so much of the advancement in military technology during the War, the impetus and organisations of an expanded military mining capability came from the civilian world.

At the outbreak of the War a millionaire entrepreneur, MP and mining engineer, John Norton Griffiths, had offered his  expertise to the War Office but with expectations of a short campaign his offer was turned down. All changed in February 1915 when he was given authority to raise a Tunnelling Company from workers employed him for the extension of Manchester's sewage system.

Norton Griffiths had realised that the geology of Manchester was very similar to that of Flanders and that the technique known a 'Clay Kicking', used by miners in his UK works, could easily transfer to the Front line. With his inimitable energy it took only 36 hours for the first 18 Clay Kickers to transfer to military service and be tunnelling to the enemy.

From this small beginning tunnelling capabilities expanded, reaching their peak in 1916 when around 25,000 men were employed in the 'Underground War'. Their tunnels protected 30 of the 80 miles of British held front line and 1,500 mines were blown.

Tunnelling Officers' Mines Rescue Class, Dudley Rescue School
Tunnelling Officers' Mines Rescue Class, Dudley Rescue School

Silent War

The main purpose of the Tunnellers work was to protect the infantry in their trenches from the actions of German Pioneers. This subterranean theatre of War relied on accuracy, technical ability and nerve.

In the clay of Flanders, Tunnellers employed the peacetime technique of ‘clay kicking’. With his back braced the seated miner would use his legs to push an extremely sharp ‘grafting tool’ into the clay. Working from the bottom up the kicker would work 9 inches before fixing a set of timber, a bagger would bag up the spoil and a trammer loaded a tram taking the spoil the surface. The process was almost silent and very fast.

In the chalk valley of the Somme, Norton Griffiths, turned to coal mining techniques and a relaxed top age of enlistment enabled very experienced civilian miners to enter military service. Digging proceeded with pick and some mechanisation but many tunnel galleries and mine chambers still had to be completed by hand, cutting the chalk with bayonets to limit noise.

In this way extensive systems progressed along and across the front lines; spearheading an enormous logistical effort to supply timber, explosives and other equipment whilst ensuring that spoil and any other sign of mining remained unobserved.

Secrecy was paramount as both sides established underground listening posts to monitor enemy activity and progress. At first relatively rudimentary methods such as water in a glass and augers were used but by 1915 the introduction of geophones was enabling much more accuracy. Using these tunnelling could be heard in clay from 100m and in chalk from a 240m distance. Establishing quiet relied fundamentally on discipline and attention to detail. British miners wore plimsolls underground, Germans remained in their hobnailed boots; British trucks and trams ran on rails screwed into place, German rails were nailed and by 1916 all British mine trolleys had self-oiling bearings.

Added, therefore, to the not inconsiderable general hazards of mining was the constant threat of defensive action by the enemy. Each side strove to disrupt the advancing enemy. Camouflet mines would be used to blow and cave-in enemy galleries; a staggered detonation could be primed to hit the rescue party which would deploy after the first blow. There are also instances of incursion and attack with hand to hand fighting taking place in mine galleries themselves.

Using geophone VI.27
Using geophone VI.27

Offensive Operations

The Somme offensive saw the first use of mining in the opening stages of a major 'push'. Months in advance of the battle thousands of RE Tunnellers worked to preparing 19 mines. These targeted strategic positions on the German front line.

Minutes before the first assault the mines were blown. The largest, Lochnegar mine at La Boiselle, blew over 60,000lbs of ammonal explosive and sent debris nearly 4000ft into the air. It successfully destroyed 9 German dugouts, about 300 men. However, as with many of the mines, the British failed to capture the strategic position formed by the crater. German machine gunners quickly positioned themselves on this vantage point.

Tunnelling Companies were also tasked with digging Russian Saps. These shallow tunnels crossed no-mans land to within metres of the German frontline with machine gun or trench mortar positions at their head. They could have provided essential shelter for Infantry, or surprise attack positions for bombing (grenade) parties before the attack. Many, however, were built in such secrecy that the Infantry were unaware of their existence whilst others were used successfully for communications and reinforcements.

Without doubt the most successful mining operation of the War was that at the Messine Ridge Offensive on the Ypres Salient 1917. Here 6000 Sappers and attached Infantry prepared 19 mines, holding nearly 1 million lbs of explosives across a 10 mile front.  The effort was enormous, relying on successful dispersals of tons of spoil, accurate surveying of targeted German positions and the constant husbandry of many mines which had been laid and tamped over a year in advance.  Time and geology combined to allow an extensive system which, when blown destroyed an enormous area of ground and is thought to have instantly killed 10,000 Germans. The remaining defenders were profoundly disorientated and incapable of mounting any resistance to the British attack. Indeed the blast even concussed some British troops waiting to attack.

Messine really marked the end of large scale offensive mining operations and defensive tactics began to shift. Tunnelling Companies were increasingly used to construct enormous subterranean systems of accommodation, headquarters, dressing stations and subways. During the final British Offensive in 1918 their knowledge of explosives, attention to detail and safety saw them remove about 2.5 million pounds of explosives from German mines and booby traps.

"The fighting spirit and technical efficiency [of the Tunnellers] has advanced the reputation of the whole Corps of Royal Engineers."      Field Marshal Douglas Haig

Mines errupting

Mines errupting

by Karyn French | 01 Jun, 2016


Leave a comment
  1. mdf | Apr 14, 2019

    پروفیل ام دی اف چیست

  2. Amelia | Apr 12, 2019
    This content is written very well. Your use of formatting when making your points makes your observations very clear and easy to understand.   Thank you. Rehabilitation science technology
  3. Royal | Apr 12, 2019
  4. Aria | Apr 10, 2019
    I admire this article for the well-researched content and excellent wording. I got so involved in this material that I couldn’t stop reading. I am impressed with your work and skill. Thank you so much. Dr of pharmacy
  5. jackjhonny | Apr 09, 2019
    Here at this site unfathomably the fundamental material collecting so everybody can regard an unprecedented course of action.  hawaii 2
  6. abhi | Apr 08, 2019
    We are one of the leading and emerging shirt manufacturing companies in Delhi, Bihar, Surat. We deal in bulk. Our primary objective is customer satisfaction. We deal in many places all over India. shirt manufacturers in delhi shirt wholesaler in delhi   wholesale shirts online india printed shirts wholesalers in south delhi designer shirts exporters in karol bagh mens formal shirts online mens shirts manufacturers in delhi
  7. ROBERT | Apr 08, 2019
    I can recommend primarily decent and even responsible tips, as a result view it: womens shoes
  8. ROBERT | Apr 06, 2019
    This is very useful, although it will be important to help simply click that web page link: maxi dresses
  9. Chandigarh escorts | Apr 04, 2019

    I am Shania Dsuza, provide the escorts services in chandigarh. We have the most delicious entertaining girls. They are most helpful to their client's relaxation

    chandigarh escorts

    Zirakpur escorts

    Mohali escorts

    Ambala escorts

    Panchkula escorts

    Amritsar escorts

    Patiala escorts

    Bathinda escorts

  10. Amelia | Apr 03, 2019
    Fantastic blog! Do you have any tips and hints for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely overwhelmed .. Any suggestions? Many thanks! Survive the heat
  11. ROBERT | Apr 03, 2019
    Just saying thanks will not just be sufficient, for the fantasti c lucidity in your writing. I will instantly grab your rss feed to stay informed of any updates. YRKKH
  12. Arsalan | Apr 03, 2019
    Beaver says I also have such interest, you can read my profile here: Star Plus Serial
  13. asdsa | Mar 30, 2019
    I d have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment! <a href="">yapboz oyunları</a>
  14. askhatri | Mar 30, 2019
    This information is magnificent. I understand and respect your clear-cut points. I am impressed with your writing style and how well you express your thoughts. Vector Tracing
  15. master | Mar 30, 2019
    These you will then see the most important thing, the application provides you a website a powerful important internet page: highest rated painters in Martinez
  16. Ella | Mar 28, 2019
    Really, this article is to a great degree one of the most flawlessly awesome ever. I am an antique 'Article' gatherer and I now and again read some new articles if I find them entrancing. Besides, I found this one extremely enchanting and it should go into my aggregation. Great work!  Best SEO company in west delhi

    Best Digital Marketing company in Delhi

  17. jackjhonny | Mar 27, 2019
    Essentially unadulterated quality from you here. I have never expected something not as much as this from you and you have not disappointed me by any extend of the creative ability. I accept you will keep the quality work going on.  บาคาร่าออนไลน์
  18. Pooja Patel | Mar 27, 2019

    You way of explanation is just marvelous. Thank you so much for the post.

    Call girls in Ludhiana 

    Ludhiana escorts 

    Escort Service in Amritsar

    Escort Service in Zirakpur

  19. ROBERT | Mar 27, 2019
    Gangaur Realtech is a professionally managed organisation specializing in real estate services where integrated services are provided by professionals to its clients seeking increased value by owning, occupying or investing in real estate.  Replica Bags Lover
  20. master | Mar 27, 2019
    Initial You got a awesome blog .I determination be involved in plus uniform minutes. i view you got truly very functional matters , i determination be always checking your blog blesss. maxi dresses
  21. MasterSeo | Mar 25, 2019



    Appreciate it! this so helpful

  22. SEOQQ | Mar 25, 2019

    Appreciate it! this so helpful

    <a href="

    "> CapsaQQ </a>

    <a href="

    "> BandarQQ </a>

  23. AntonLight | Mar 25, 2019

    thank you so much for sharing such a superb informations with us. Your website is very cool. Visit our website


    Baca Manga


  24. jackjhonny | Mar 25, 2019
    Below you will understand what is important, the idea provides one of the links with an exciting site: betway88
  25. Katie Molina | Mar 20, 2019
    Your blog is very nice! Thank you for this wonderful information. I like very much for this article. And it will give more information from this blog.  Codes Saver Coupons Deals I also waiting for more than one information this is to get some more processes are available. Thanks for this nice article.
  26. Adilkhatri | Mar 19, 2019
    I feel exceptionally appreciative that I read this. It is exceptionally useful and extremely useful and I extremely took in a great deal from it.  Mer om Wordpressbloggar
  27. Tris | Mar 19, 2019
    Thank you for your sharing. Thanks to this article I can learn more things. Expand your knowledge and abilities. Actually the article is very practical. Thank you!  
    2 player games
  28. Aria | Mar 18, 2019
    i am for the first time here. I found this board and I in finding It truly helpful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to present something back and help others such as you helped me. Pre Pregnancy
  29. Merck SEO | Mar 17, 2019
    There are a lot of great ideas in this post. I hope you keep this quality level up so we can enjoy a lot more great content from your side. Weebly blog
  30. Seo expert | Mar 16, 2019 is professional power supply trading and power supply wholesale provider, mainly focused on dell,hp,lenovo / IBM power supply and server workstation components. cyy97
  31. Akki12 | Mar 15, 2019
    nice post.
  32. Seo expert | Mar 15, 2019
    The author is energetic about acquiring wooden furniture on the web and his investigation about best wooden furniture has realized the plan of this article.  สล็อตออนไลน์
  33. manav | Mar 15, 2019
  34. Seo expert | Mar 15, 2019
    I needed to leave a little remark to help you and wish you a decent continuation. Wishing you the good luck for all your blogging endeavors.  Vidare till sidan nu
  35. Emma | Mar 14, 2019

    This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work!.


  36. james jack | Mar 14, 2019
    You re in point of fact a just right webmaster. The website loading speed is amazing. It kind of feels that you're doing any distinctive trick. Moreover, The contents are masterpiece. you have done a fantastic activity on this subject! Agence spécialisée e-influenceurs
  37. manav | Mar 14, 2019
  38. famitofu | Mar 14, 2019
    Shine bright, shine bright. You're perfect in my eyes basketball games
  39. Seo expert | Mar 14, 2019
    These things are vital, great think so - I suspect as much as well...  Vish Ya Amrit Sitara
  40. Ritika Patel | Mar 10, 2019

    pls click my web sites my friends 

  41. Ritika Patel | Mar 10, 2019
    I am Ritika Patel from Ahmedabad escorts. If you want to get chance for my Escorts service in Ahmedabad than contact me now. Our call girls in Ahmedabad are availble full day and night Escorts service in AhmedabadOur Ahmedabad call girls are looking gorgeous and beautiful. You can also check our models via our Ahmedabad call girls whatsapp Number.Ahmedabad call girlsEscorts service in AhmedabadAhmedabad escortsAhmedabad call girls whatsapp Number
  42. GabrielaJCookson | Mar 08, 2019

    Sample Assignment provides an all-year long Assignment provider. While providing the academic aid, we foresee ourselves to be known as the chosen one academic consultant like Nursing, IT, Law, Marketing, Economics, Accounting, Statistics, stata assignment help etc. are some of the subjects to name that we cater to the Australian students in. We were recently recognised as the most reliable and dependable assignment service, and also voted as the Numero Uno assignment provider for the past two years. The Online essay Typer have been using their past experience and knowledge in order to supply the students with HD grade assignments including dissertations, essays, thesis, reports, journals, reflections, case study analysis, etc. There are many companies in the industry which functioning at skyrocketed prices. Be it accounting assignment help, marketing or management assignment help, computer science assignment help, taxation assignment help; we proffer our expert guidance in all of the assignments.

  43. james | Mar 08, 2019
    Sample Assignment is a leading brand for Australian Students where students get assignment help service for all the subjects like, essay, nursing, marketing, case study, finance, economics, report writing, accounting and more, with the help of our experts. You will get 100% plagiarism free assignment. Expert’s consultation is also available for students. If they have any query they can contact with our experts anytime. If you buy assignment online get a touch with here now!The students who avail professional writing help look for fast solutions. The fast assessment writing service introduced by Sample assignment by assignment Providers. Simply send in the details of your assignment, and we’ll do the rest. Be it providing a programming assignment help, management assignment help, business plan assessments, business strategy assignments, and more we have you covered.
  44. ewa | Mar 06, 2019

  45. ewa | Mar 06, 2019
    Apple Technical Support Phone Number +1-855-557-0666 is a high class individual tech support service provider giving support services for Apple products. The well-trained technicians of the company are committed to fix every type of technical issue at very affordable rates. This company resolves issues for internet problems, OS and software related issues, and other issues of Mac, iPHone, iPade and iTunes
  46. engineersatwar | Mar 06, 2019
  47. engineersatwar | Mar 06, 2019
  48. Arora | Mar 06, 2019
    At GetSetWild, one get all types of adult toys for men and women. One can <a href="">buy sex toys in Mumbai</a> through our online eCommerce portal.
  49. jaysica | Mar 04, 2019
  50. Manav Malik | Feb 27, 2019

    Leave a comment

    For Gallantry

    On the 4th August 1916 Sapper William Hackett won the only Victoria Cross ever to be awarded to a military miner.

    “For most conspicuous bravery when entombed with four others in a gallery owing to the explosion of an enemy mine. After working for 20 hours, a hole was made through fallen earth and broken timber, and the outside party was met. Sapper Hackett helped three of the men through the hole and could easily have followed, but refused to leave the fourth, who had been seriously injured, saying," I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first." Meantime, the hole was getting smaller, yet he still refused to leave his injured comrade. Finally, the gallery collapsed, and though the rescue party worked desperately for four days the attempt to reach the two men failed. Sapper Hackett well knowing the nature of sliding earth, the chances against him, deliberately gave his life for his comrade".   The London Gazette, dated 4 August 1916

    William Hacket’s Victoria Cross can be seen from May 2017 at the Royal Engineer’s Museum, Chatham.

    Archive, Royal Engineers Museum

    Back to top

    Hackett VC portrait
    Hackett's VC portrait

    Other Features