Mining warfare in WWI – by Cecilia Keating (CIM Magazine – November 04, 2016)

During the critical battles of World War One, skilled miners – many of them Canadian – made Allied victories possible

In 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 underground.

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 long 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 units, or ‘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.

Almost 300 men left Saint John on Jan. 1, 1916. The second, comprised of men from Alberta and British Columbia, left Halifax three weeks later. The third was formed of Canadian miners who had joined the armed forces and were already fighting in Europe.

The busiest year for this type of 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. The latter were often ‘bantams,’ men who did not meet the height requirements for regular units.

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, the miners were exposed to the particular horrors of underground warfare. These included 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. Mining 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.

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