The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars

Continuing with our recent WWI theme we watched a one-off programme about the tunnels under the Somme battlefield presented by Peter Barton. The title (The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars) and a bit of the introductory segment have an air of Discovery Channel-esque "we will Solve The Mystery!", but the programme as a whole steered away from that and was very interesting. It combined the history (who built the tunnels & why) with footage from an archaeological dig at the site which included people going into the tunnels for the first time since the battle of the Somme itself.

The conventional image of WWI fighting is of men in trenches, going over the top, barbed wire, and artillery bombardments. What's often forgotten or not known (and certainly I hadn't really thought about before) is that both sides also tunnelled under the enemy trenches and detonated explosives underneath them. This happened all along the Western Front, but Barton was concentrating on telling us about the Somme battlefield (because of the archaeological dig, I assume) where the mining was also planned to play a large part in the battle of the Somme. Mining has been a part of siege warfare for centuries, if not millennia, and Barton showed us some mines under the walls of the castle at St Andrews, Scotland which had been dug in the 16th Century. He said that the way mines were dug hadn't really changed in that time - dig under the enemy fortifications hopefully without being heard, hollow out a big chamber and stuff it with explosives, blow up the enemy above you. And the counter tactics are also much the same - listen for tunneling, dig towards the noise (from below if you can, above if you must), enter their tunnels or blow them up first. So if you took a 16th Century miner and dropped him into a WWI group of miners he wouldn't need much training to get the hang of the few technological differences.

The British miners were not drawn from the Army. Instead they were firstly sewer diggers (claykickers) and later coal miners who were brought into the army structure & given uniforms, but really just there to do their one job - dig tunnels (quietly). Often these were men who'd been refused when they tried to join the infantry - generally as they were too old, which for this job meant only that they were more experienced. Barton spent a bit of time showing us (with the help of some demonstraters) how they built the tunnels through clay or through chalk, and also gave us an idea of the physical difficulties and dangers the men faced. There were all the risks that are normally associated with tunneling or mining, but also the constant fear of being detected. Barton pointed out that mining was one of the most brutal aspects of a brutal war. It had significant effects on the morale of the normal infantry, knowing that their trenches might suddenly be blown up. And for the miners it was worse. If one side detected the other mining, they would tunnel to underneath them and then detonate explosives directly under they enemy tunnel. But first they would wait and listen till as many men as possible were in the tunnel above. And once the first explosion was done, they'd dig out a new chamber to fill with explosives, then once they heard the rescue party come along for the first casualties they'd blow out the second chamber. All about maximising the dead from a single detection of a tunnel. During the war detection technology increased in sophistication. At first it was simply a matter of listening through a pipe, or setting out a tray of water and watching for ripples. But later much more sophisticated detectors were invented that could detect tunnelling at up to 100 feet away in clay, or 250 feet in chalk.

The plan for the battle of the Somme included two extremely large quantities of explosives under the German trenches, which would break the German lines and also take out some troublesome machinegun posts. One tunnel was dug as planned, the other couldn't quite get close enough so two chambers were built at that end with enough explosive that the distance didn't matter. And all the explosives were detonated as intended - Barton walked round the top of one of the craters that still exists today, it's absolutely huge. But through no fault of the tunnellers it was not enough - in particular the one under the machinegun post had been detected late in the process and the Germans had evacuated their guns and troops, then set up again once the explosion was over. The other explosion also didn't do as much damage to the German troops or their morale as the planners had hoped. And so the easy victory the British Army had hoped for turned into one of the biggest disasters of the war, with more than 10,000 casualties on the British side in the first day alone.

A sobering programme, as WWI programmes often are. Barton did a good job of not just explaining the facts, but also of getting across something of what it would've been like to be there.

We watched very little TV last week, the only other things was episode 2 of A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley - series about the popular fascination with murder in late Victorian & Edwardian times.