War history: A few days before Christmas 1914 and a new form of warfare begins under ground

The early months of the war soon led to a stalemate on the Western Front. This is a French trench

The early months of the war soon led to a stalemate on the Western Front. This is a French trench - Credit: Archant

Mike Peters wrote last week about the impact of technology on wartime aviation ? specifically Germany’s lethal Fokker fighter.

Major John Norton-Griffiths was larger than life. He recruited 'clay kickers' to dig under ground

Major John Norton-Griffiths was larger than life. He recruited 'clay kickers' to dig under ground - Credit: Archant

Here, Galloway’s resident military historian looks at moves to break the deadlock on the Western Front.

The “Fokker Scourge” of summer 1915 would last for months, into the autumn and winter, before allied aircraft could tackle their foes on an equal footing. This week I thought we should leave the struggle for supremacy of the skies and look at an equally deadly battle that was escalating 100 years ago this month. This was an unseen battle, fought far below the wheeling aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps and their German counterparts.

The stalemate of trench warfare had created a siege on an unprecedented scale; the sides deadlocked, facing each other in almost static lines of trenches. A stalemate that ironically, amid intense competition to gain a technological edge, would lead to the return of a form of warfare that traced its origin back to the ancients.

Trench warfare presented both sides with the challenge of how to break through well-established defences, including machine guns and barbed wire. It was not long before the long-abandoned art of undermining was remembered and introduced on the Western Front.

Watching and waiting. A French soldier uses a periscope to check on the enemy, who wasn't far away

Watching and waiting. A French soldier uses a periscope to check on the enemy, who wasn't far away - Credit: Archant

Tunnelling and mining had its origins in siege warfare and although it had been employed in 19th Century conflicts, conventional military thinking prior to 1914 thought it to be obsolete in the fast-moving mobile wars predicted for the 20th Century. In fact, when war broke out in the summer of 1914, Royal Engineer officers had studied siege warfare, but the British Army had no specialist units dedicated to the application of subterranean warfare.

The winter of 1914 saw the beginning of another technological race and a major rethink on tunnelling and mining. On December 20, 1914, German engineers tunnelled under British positions at Givenchy and covertly planted a series of 50kg mines. The mines were detonated as part of a coordinated infantry attack, killing over 800 officers and men of the Indian Army Corps.

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The German Army was clearly opening a new flank on the Western Front, an underground war had begun and they had seized the initiative.

If the Givenchy attack itself was a surprise, the imminent opening of a subterranean front was not. On December 3, just weeks before the German success, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of British IV Corps, had requested the formation of a special mining battalion. The attack at Givenchy highlighted the vulnerability of British defences to this new form of warfare. Within days, Rawlinson’s request for British underground troops was acted upon.

The drive to raise a new force would involve one of the most colourful characters of the war. Major John Norton-Griffiths came to the fore and set about creating this new force. Norton-Griffiths was truly larger than life. He had been an MP, an entrepreneur, and was certainly an adventurer. He also knew his way around the mining industry and immediately advocated the recruiting of “clay kickers”.

These men were specialists employed in the expansion of the London Underground. Along with miners and quarrymen from Britain and the Commonwealth, they had the ideal skill-set for the units envisaged by Rawlinson and Norton-Griffiths.

The recruitment of what were initially known as Brigade Mining Sections got underway quickly. Meanwhile, the Royal Engineers were mounting their first mining attacks, exploding the first mine under German trenches on Hill 60, Ypres, on February 17, 1915. On the same day, the first civilian tunnellers were being enlisted and issued with uniforms. Such was the urgency that just four days later, and with no military training, they were under ground, digging beneath the Western Front.

The mobilisation of men to fight under ground carried on at pace. In February, 1915, the formation of eight new specialist tunnelling companies was ordered, with men recruited primarily from the UK mining industry. The formation of a further 12 companies was ordered shortly after, such was the threat as the underground war escalated.

More would follow in 1916, as well as similar units comprised of Australian, Canadian and New Zealand specialists. A Mine Rescue School was established in Armentieres in 1915. The summer of 1915 was the backdrop to this new underground war; both sides began mining operations against each other.

Geological conditions constrained where mining could take place. Nevertheless, far below the trenches, the two groups of engineers fought their underground battle. What developed was a slow-moving game of cat and mouse as the two sides attempted to penetrate beneath their opponent’s frontline, while also trying to prevent the enemy doing the same to them.

The fighting under ground was no less savage than that taking place above ground. Both sides developed methods of detecting the other and then breaking through into enemy tunnels, where fighting was usually at close quarter and terrifying. If the rival miners did not break through and fight each other hand to hand, they would often plant mines or camouflet charges with the intent of collapsing their opponent’s tunnels on them.

Like the aerial fighting described last week, the underground war rapidly acquired its own mystique, specialist technology and language. The use of mines became common and their detonation was generally integrated into the planning for any new offensive.

See more from Mike Peters hereIf you want to learn more or see evidence of the underground war, why not organise your own bespoke group visit to the Western Front? Visit their website to find out more.

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