n the First World War trenches cleaved Europe from the North Sea to Switzerland. While the battlefield above ground was static, a secret subterranean war raged. The British Army began to form specialist army units of trained tunnellers in 1915, initially recruiting men from poor coal mining communities in Britain.
Their job was to create a labyrinth of underground tunnels that extended under enemy lines and could be packed with explosives, and to dig ‘camouflets’, smaller mines used to collapse enemy tunnels. They were also tasked with building extensive networks of tunnels behind Allied lines, allowing for undetected movement of men and supplies.
Faced with growing demand for skilled miners, the British government appealed to Canada to raise tunnelling ‘companies’ in September 1915. The first was mobilised in Pembroke, Ontario and recruited men from mining centres in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The second was comprised of men from Alberta and British Columbia. The third was formed of Canadian miners who were already fighting in Europe.
The busiest year for tunnel warfare was 1916. The British blew 750 offensive mines and the Germans blew 696. The British army had roughly 25,000 tunnellers along with 50,000 infantry who worked permanently alongside them doing unskilled tasks, from ventilating tunnels to ferrying equipment.
Miners did not have to meet the age requirements for regular infantry and could be as old as 60. They were often paid more than soldiers to match their salaries at home, a source of contention for many.
Added to the hazards of early 20th century mining, miners were exposed to the particular horrors of underground warfare, including enemy explosives, asphyxiation, trench foot, drowning, entombment, cold, cramp and the threat of unearthing German soldiers digging in the other direction and having to fight hand-to-hand to stay alive. Casualties were high; one tunnelling company had 16 killed, 48 sent to hospital and 86 minor cases treated at the shaft head in a six-week period.
Tunnellers worked by candlelight and operated in silence to avoid detection. Allied miners used the ‘clay kicking method,’ a technique borrowed from sewer, road and railway works in England. In each team there would be a ‘kicker’ who would lie on his back on a wooden cross and use his legs to work a finely sharpened spade known as a ‘grafting tool’ into the rock face.
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