Shirebrook Miners in the Tunnelling Companies

Shirebrook was in the news in the UK owing to the working practices in a warehouse operated by the company Sports Direct. At the beginning of the twentieth century Shirebrook was infamous in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire for the thousands of miners drawn to its colliery. Many joined the specially formed Tunnelling Companies to dig deep beneath no man’s land and the German lines during the First World War.  I have gathered the stories below for my book on Tunnellers at La Boisselle in 1915-1916. 

A large group of miners recruited from collieries around Chesterfield and Mansfield crossed to France on 23 September 1915 and many were posted to 185th Tunnelling Company. The most notorious mining centre in the region was Shirebrook which had grown rapidly after a pit was sunk in 1896 and in fifteen years the population had risen from 600 to 11,000. It gained a reputation for immorality, drunkenness and violence with the newspapers filled with reports of attacks on the police, armed poachers and closing-time fights outside the pubs.[1] John Flowers, a 37 year old miner well-known to the police and courts, appeared before magistrates on 4 September 1915 for being drunk and disorderly in Shirebrook, during which he had offered his wife for sale. Although already under a bond of good behaviour, he was let off on the condition that he enlisted. [2]

sheffield-evening-telegraph-september-4-1915

Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 4 September 1915.

Three weeks later he was at the Rouen Base Camp allotted to the 185th. Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts, good friends in their late twenties, enlisted as Tunnellers on the same day as Flowers. Despite the chaotic picture of Shirebrook depicted in the local press, it was a comparatively small number of miners who regularly appeared before the courts. Eight years before, an encounter with one such individual had serious consequences for Joe and Tom when, one night after closing time, Hodgetts, a keen amateur boxer, agreed to fight the man. He produced a knife and stabbed Tom and Joe in the head and neck.[3]

sheffield-evening-telegraph-march-19-1907

Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 19 March 1907.

Joe and Tom survived serious injuries and it may have been this experience that moved Joe to begin organising meetings at the Pentecostal Mission.

joe-cox-and-tom-hodgettsres

Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts, 185th Tunnelling Company photographed on the Somme in Albert. (c) Duncan Hunting

In a photograph taken in Albert in the winter of 1915-1916, Tom rests his arm on Joe’s shoulder; only one would survive the war.

derbyshire-courier-tuesday-24-april-1917

The Derbyshire Courier, 24 April 1917.

joe-cox-grave-c-duncan-huntingres

Joe Cox’s grave in Lapugnoy Military Cemetery, France. (c) Duncan Hunting.

A group of miners from the Shirebrook area would excel in driving tunnels though the hard chalk of the Somme and Vimy Ridge. In 1916 they were awarded silver medals by 185th Tunnelling Company for a record drive of 127 feet 4 inches in 120 hours, including Harry Richardson (whose name was given in the press as J. Richardson).

derbyshire-courier-october-12-1918

derbyshire-courier-october-17-1916acontr

Derbyshire Courier, 17 October 1916.

John Flowers, Tom Hodgetts and Harry Richardson survived the war but Flowers was soon in court again for drunkenness, this time blaming wartime gas poisoning for his conduct. The gas he referred to was carbon monoxide, released in large quantities in the underground galleries by the detonation of massive explosive charges. It could cause violent behaviour and permanent mental impairment.

derbyshire-courier-october-11-1919

Derbyshire Courier, 11 October 1919.

[1] Belper News, Derbyshire Courier and Nottingham Evening Post, passim.

[2] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 4/9/1915; Belper News, 10/9/1915; Silver War Badge roll WO329/3002.

[3] Derbyshire Courier, 23/3/1907, Nottingham Evening Post, 11/4/1907, Derby Daily Telegraph, 11/4/1907.


Hawtrey, Young, Bullock 28 June 1916res

The Men Who Dug The Lochnagar Mine


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Edward Harrison who gave his life to protect against poison gas


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Col di Lana

Col di Lana and Monte Sief saw some of the most dramatic mine warfare of the fighting on the Dolomite front during the First World War. The Austro-Hungarians held the twin summits but the Italians sapped up the southeastern slope and used a mine to capture the Col di Lana summit on 17 April 1916. Underground fighting for the ridge connecting Col di Lana and Monte Sief culminated in a 45 tonne Austrian mine which cut a notch visible for miles.

Col di Lana from Passo Sief

Col di Lana and Monte Sief from the Passo Sief. The Col di Lana summit on the left was taken by the Italians on 17 April 1916. The summit on the right, Monte Sief, remained in Austrian hands. The notch in Monte Sief was caused by an Austrian mine of 45 tonnes.

Austrian trench with remains of timbers, Passo Sief

Austrian trench with remains of timbers, Passo Sief.

Austrian positions, Passo Sief

Austrian positions, Passo Sief.

Setsas from Monte Sief, cross with shell

Setsas from Monte Sief, shell fragment.

Austrian positions Monte Sief view to Setas

Austrian positions Monte Sief, view to Setas.

Setsas from Monte Sief

Setsas from Austrian positions on Monte Sief.


Monte Sief shell fragment

Shell fragment found in the Austrian positions, Monte Sief.

Monte Sief Austrian positions along the ridge

Austrian positions on the ridge leading to the summit of Monte Sief.

Monte Sief, Austrian positions

Austrian positions on the ridge leading to the summit of Monte Sief.

Austrian positions, Monte Sief2

Austrian positions, Monte Sief.

Austrian positions, Monte Sief view to Col di Lana

Austrian positions, Monte Sief, view towards Col di Lana.

Austrian loophole, Monte Sief

Austrian loophole, Monte Sief.

view from Austrian loophole, Monte Sief

Austrian loophole, Monte Sief.

Austrian positions, Monte Sief

Austrian positions, Monte Sief.

Austrian cavern

Austrian tunnelled observation posts, Monte Sief.

Austrian cavern and OP

Austrian tunnelled gallery, with later graffiti.

Austrian tunnelled gallery

Austrian tunnelled gallery.

Austrian tunnelled OP Monte Sief

Austrian tunnelled observation post, Monte Sief.

View into mine crater of 2 October 1917

View into the mine crater of 21 October 1917, caused by the detonation of 45 tonnes of explosives, looking towards Col di Lana.

Descent into crater of 2 October 1917

Descending into the crater of 21 October 1917.

Col di Lana crater of 17 April 1916

The summit of Col di Lana, captured by the Italians on 17 April 1916.

Col di Lana crater of 17 April 1916a

The crater formed by the Italian 5,000 kg mine of 17 April 1916.

Italian trench up the southeastern slope of Col di Lana

Italian trench up the southeastern slope of Col di Lana.

Marmot at the Sief Refugio

Marmot at the Sief Refugio.


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Tunnellers on the Western Front: the Underground War Battlefield Tour 7-11 June 2017


Monte Zovetto OP 2The Italian Front in the First World War at Asiago: Monte Zovetto and Magnaboschi


Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts (c) Duncan Hunting

The men who laid the Lochnagar Mine


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The Lochnagar Mine

Version française ici

IWM Q3999

(c) IWM Q3999

Blown at 7.28 a.m. on 1st July 1916, the Lochnagar mine crater near the village of La Boisselle is one of the best-known and most dramatic landmarks of the Somme battlefield. The yawning chasm is the result of a massive explosion at the opening of the battle.  This article is about how and why the Lochnagar mine was blown, who were the men who dug it, what effect did it have on the Germans, and whether it helped the attack.

The Glory Hole

Underground warfare began in the La Boisselle sector on Christmas Day 1914. The purpose of blowing a mine beneath an enemy position was to destroy a section of the defences but mostly the tunnels were stopped beneath no man’s land by counter mines. By the time the British took over the sector from French troops, no man’s land was riddled with mine galleries below ground and the surface was a mass of large craters, as both sides fought to destroy their opponents galleries by detonating ever larger explosive charges.[1]

RIR111 (c) R. Whitehead

The front line of the German 111th Reserve Infantry Regiment at the ‘Glory Hole’, called by the Germans the Granathof Stellung, 1915-16. ‘Tr’ represents mine craters in no man’s land. (c) Ralph Whitehead.

The specialist British 179th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers arrived in the sector in August 1915 and found the Germans dominant, with deeper and more extensive tunnel networks. There followed a desperate struggle for control of the ground beneath no man’s land and the sector became so riven by mine craters that the British troops named it the ‘Glory Hole’. By October, when 185th Tunnelling Company was brought in to work alongside 179th, they had dug down to the water level at around 100 feet but the Germans were even deeper.[2]

British and German mine systems at La Boisselle. (c) GoogleEarth and Simon Jones

British and German mine systems at La Boisselle. (c) GoogleEarth and Simon Jones

Neither the French nor the British had managed to place a tunnel beneath the enemy front line, but the Germans had achieved it several times, destroying trenches and dugouts and burying alive infantry and engineers.  The Germans had established ascendancy beneath no man’s land on the Western Front and the British response was to form specialist Tunnelling Companies of experienced miners. The officers were mostly mining engineers and 185th was commanded by Captain Thomas Richardson who, a few months previously, had been in charge of sewerage construction in Rio de Janeiro.

Thomas Richardson

Thomas Richardson, first commander of 185th Tunnelling Company.

The Genesis of the Lochnagar Mine

On 11th November 1915, in a new attempt to reach the German trenches, Richardson began a new tunnel away from any known German mining. To conceal the entrance from German view, he began it 400 feet behind his own front line, at a communication trench called Lochnagar Street, but to reach the German lines it would need to be driven almost a thousand feet.

To further conceal the workings and protect them from shell and mortar fire, Richardson first sank a vertical shaft 30 feet and excavated a chamber; from here he began what was described as a ‘main attack gallery’ at a steep 45 degree incline. To remove the spoil, he drove another gallery sloping gently back from the chamber to a point over 100 feet behind. By the end of the month they had driven the attack gallery 115 feet which, if it maintained a 45 degree incline, will have reached 110 feet depth. They had also begun a second gallery at 45 feet depth, running towards the German line on a horizontally plane which had reached 54 feet in length. The miners advanced the tunnels by up to 17 feet a day but the speed of work caused problems for the infantry having to remove the spoil. For every foot dug about 48 sandbags of spoil had to be removed and in early December they lay a trolley way to facilitate their removal.[3] Richardson also began a third gallery towards the Germans by branching from the main attack gallery at 90 feet depth; like the 45 feet gallery, this was horizontal rather than inclined.

Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts (c) Duncan Hunting

Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts, miners from Shirebrook, Derbyshire, serving with 185th Tunnelling Company photographed on the Somme in Albert. Friends from before the war, only Tom survived. (c) Duncan Hunting

At the deeper levels, the chalk was extremely hard and the engineering contractor who had recruited the Tunnelling Companies, John Norton-Griffiths, advocated using pneumatic picks to drive tunnels through it at the water level, between 80 and 120 feet deep, to attack the Germans.[4] Richardson, however, did not to use a compressor to drill the Lochnagar tunnels mechanically, although one was installed at the far more extensive Inch Street system in the Glory Hole. Compressed air driven rotary drills were not a success and stuck in small pockets of soft chalk,[5] while hammer drills could be heard for long distances underground, alerting the enemy to the activity. The alternative however was also noisy, as it involved shot blasting with explosives from 1½-inch diameter holes hand-drilled into the face. The reverberation of the denotations were clearly heard and felt for long distances underground, but Richardson and his German opponents adopted shot blasting as the only means of making progress. Captain Henry Hance, who commanded 179th Tunnelling Company, disliked this method because he believed it would provoke the enemy and alert them to the British work, but he also had no choice but to adopt it.

Sometime in January 1916 Richardson ceased driving the main attack gallery, possibly because it was well below the water level and will have needed constant pumping. He continued the 45 feet and 90 feet deep horizontal galleries and, because the ground rose towards the German lines, their depths slowly increased to 50 and 100 feet. Richardson’s reasons for driving galleries at different levels are not fully clear but they enabled him to listen more effectively for German counter mines and also enabled him to mask the noise from his deeper gallery with deliberately noisy work at the upper level.[6]

German Suspicions: Silent Working

The spoil heap from the Lochnagar workings quickly grew to ‘a colossal mountain of white chalk burrowed from the bowels of the earth.’[7]  The Germans could see it from aerial photographs and probably also from their own lines and began to shell it regularly. Early on the 30th January, the Germans launched a raid on the British front line south of the Lochnagar mine, capturing a dozen men of the Essex Regiment but failed to reach the mine entrance. [8] It was a lucky escape but shortly afterwards, a disaster was to befall 185th. On 4th February, while Richardson was experimenting with a listening apparatus in the Inch Street system, the Germans blew a mine charge close to a British gallery. Methane from the explosion was forced into the British system and detonated, badly injuring Richardson and another officer; the resulting vacuum drew in carbon monoxide, also a by-product of the original explosion, which killed the two officers and sixteen miners.

Three weeks later, 185th Tunnelling Company was ordered to a new sector to the north and Hance’s 179th took over its underground workings. By this time, the upper Lochnagar gallery was advanced almost 800 feet, the lower 535 feet. Hance halted work on the deeper gallery and just continued the upper, which was now less than 200 feet from the German front line. The danger of detection was now extremely real. They halted work frequently to listen for sounds of German countermining, often for long periods, and on 8th March no sounds were audible to the naked ear for 24 hours. By the end that month, the face of the Lochnagar tunnel was about 140 feet from the Germans and 179th had to try to work in complete silence if the Germans were not to detect them. The hand-pushed spoil trucks were too noisy, even though they were fitted with rubber tyres and ran on wooden rails and, as one of the officers, James Young, recalled, ‘at the end everything was man-handled.’[9]  Lieutenant Stanley Bullock described the ground as ‘broken chalk’, which meant that it was possible to get a bayonet point into cracks in the face, and Hance described the methods used to avoid being heard:

It was done in silence. A large number of bayonets were fitted with handles. The operator inserted the point in a crack in the “face”, or alongside a flint, of which there were any number in the chalk, gave it a twist which wrenched loose a piece of stone of varying size which he caught with his other hand and laid on the floor.  If, for any reason, he had to use greater force, another man from behind would catch the stone as it fell.  The men worked bare-footed, the floor of the gallery was carpeted with sandbags, and an officer was always present to preserve silence.  As sand bags were filled with chalk they were passed out along a line of men seated on the floor, and stacked against the wall ready for use later as tamping.[10]

H M Hance

Henry M. Hance, commander of 179th Tunnelling Company, photographed before the war. (c) Mr. J. Bennett and Simon Jones.

To ventilate the long drive they used large blacksmiths bellows connected to hose which ran up to the working face but the air was still so poor that candles would only burn at the face directly where the air came out of the hose.[11] They reduced the size of the gallery to about four and a half feet high and two and a half feet wide, leaving less to excavate, but conditions were even more uncomfortable.  Hance recalled:

The work was extremely laborious, and if we advanced 18” in 24 hours we thought we did well.[12]

In fact, average progress during March fell to less than one foot a day.[13]

In the Inch Street system, the galleries of both sides were so close beneath no man’s land that a break-in, described by Bullock as ‘one of the things we dreaded,’ was daily expected and finally occurred on 10th April 1916.[14] Captain Wilfred Creswick, in charge of the Inch Street and Lochnagar workings, entered an enemy gallery but the Germans blew a charge laid in readiness and he, with two miners working nearby, were killed and their bodies lost beyond recovery. Creswick was replaced as Section Commander by James Young, a colliery manager from Kilmarnock; he was to be responsible for the completion, charging and firing of the Lochnagar mine. The next day, the Germans raided the front line above the Lochnagar mine for a second time, capturing 29 British infantry but, again, they did not penetrate as far as the tunnel entrance. On the day of the raid, Hance was sent for extended leave to a rest centre in Marseille for reasons not recorded but probably exhaustion and he didn’t return until 7th June. Until then, 179th was under the second in command, Captain Gilbert Rowan, a colliery manager from Fife. This was to be a crucial period of preparation for the Somme offensive.

Gilbert Rowan (c) Fiona Middlemiss

Gilbert Rowan, who commanded 179th Tunnelling Company during much of the preparation for the Battle of the Somme. (c) Fiona Middlemiss

The Lochnagar tunnel was directed at a German position known as the Schwabenhöhe from which the Germans had a wide field of fire against British attackers crossing an area known as Sausage Valley. Hance described the objective as being threefold:

(1) to destroy the enemy trench and to knock out his machine guns at this point, where his trench formed a pronounced salient (2) to destroy his underground system whatever it might be (3) to kill any troops he might have sheltering underground from our bombardment.[15]

In mid-April, 179th branched the tunnel to aim at two points on the German front line with the intention of placing two mines, 250 feet apart but, as the branches were slowly advanced, they began to hear the sounds of Germans overhead, digging down from their front line. The German mining operations were carried out by Württemberg troops of the 1st Reserve Company of the 13th Pioneers, commanded by Lieutenant Sihler. Sihler must have suspected British activity because in April he started two underground listening galleries from the Schwabenhöhe; on 22nd reported that noises had been heard in front of the southern part and began three more tunnels to try to locate the source. By the end of the month, the two closest to the British tunnel were about 130 feet away but, although the southernmost was kinked slightly towards the British tunnel, they continued otherwise straight suggesting that Sihler had not pinpointed its location. By mid-June Sihler’s two galleries closest to the Lochnagar tunnel were both down over 80 feet (27m and 26m), almost twice as deep as the British.[16] ‘Jerry was very close and under us,’ Young recalled and, as they worked silently in the Lochnagar tunnel, the British miners could hear the Germans plainly with the naked ear, in a gallery descending from their front line, ‘stumping down their incline’ and also clearly above in dugouts.[17] But the sounds didn’t get any closer: Sihler knew they were somewhere but didn’t know exactly where.

The Coming Somme Attack

During April and May Rowan had to deal with increasing demands on his men for the coming Somme offensive. The 179th was engaged in a second major mine gallery on the left side of La Boisselle village, aimed at a German position known as Y Sap, which was to be even longer than the Lochnagar tunnel. Rowan was also ordered to dig a series of shallow tunnels across no man’s land, known as ‘Russian Saps’, not only at La Boisselle but opposite Ovillers and Thiepval to the north, intended as mortar or machine gun positions and to enable re-supply once the German front line had been captured. One, known as Kerriemuir, was started in April about 400 feet to the left of the Lochnagar mine. Rowan had to withdraw a quarter of his personnel from the tunnel system at the Glory Hole to work on the Russian Saps and the blowing of mines in the Glory Hole was stopped unless absolutely necessary.[18] Hugh Kerr, in charge of the Y Sap tunnel, paid tribute to the men of 179th:

The men worked like hell – you never saw such workmen in your life.  They went all out. We had over 900 strong at one time; had about 600 or 700 infantry attached humping sandbags out of the place.[19]

On 15th May Rowan attended a meeting at III Corps headquarters at which the coming attack was explained: ten days later he suffered a reoccurrence of a gastric ulcer. It was only in mid-June, when the commander of Fourth Army, General Rawlinson, issued orders for the attack, that the rest of the 179th were definitely informed of it. The strain of the work also told on the men and during late May and June some miners were demoted from six shilling a day ‘Tunnellers’ to two shillings and two pence ‘Tunneller’s Mates’ for ‘inefficiency’ or ‘laziness’, a major blow to the pride of a miner who could earn far more at home. On 19th June, a Sergeant deserted but was later allowed to continue serving in the ranks.

The Y Sap mine reached its target beneath the German position, at the cost of sacrificing quiet working, but progress at Lochnagar was so slow that time was running out. When the 4th Army Operation Order was issued on 14th June, neither of the two Lochnagar branches tunnels had reached beneath the German line, both were well over a hundred feet short. Hance stopped driving the two tunnels forward and began cutting out chambers to contain explosives. To compensate, he would have to ‘overcharge’ the mines with far more explosive than was needed simply to form a crater, in order to throw the maximum amount of debris over the German trenches: rather than blow the defenders skywards, they would bury them alive.  The overcharging would also to throw up high lips of debris which might form a barrier to prevent the Germans firing from the flanks, especially from the village of La Boisselle across no man’s land, and also create high ground from which the attackers could gain observation and fire over the Germans. But this depended on the attackers reaching the high lips before the Germans and previous experience showed that the Germans were faster than the British at capturing crater lips, even when taken by surprise.

The plan by the 34th Division to capture the heavily fortified La Boisselle relied on a converging attack which would envelop the village. Rather than helping this attack, the mines risked disrupting it, for the attacking infantry would have to pass either side of the Lochnagar  and Y Sap mines, leaving gaps in the advance. The battalion on whose left front the Lochnagar mine was to be detonated, the 10th Lincolns (Grimsby Chums), had to delay their advance because of the need to withdraw from their front line owing to the danger of their trenches collapsing and the perceived danger of falling debris. No man’s land was wider to the right of the mine and this meant that they had to cross an even wider expanse. When the commander of the brigade which was to make the attack at this point (Brigadier-General R. C. Gore, 101st Infantry Brigade) briefed his battalion commanders on the coming operation, one, Lt. Col. Urmiston, 15th Royal Scots, objected that the mine would delay the advance and leave his men vulnerable to machine gun fire coming from his left when the German machine gunners would be able to focus entirely on his battalion. He offered to change places  with the Lincolns, closest to the mine, and take the risk from the debris, if it meant that all the units could advance simultaneously. According to Urmiston, his offer was declined by his brigade commander who felt unable to alter decisions already taken by the higher command.[20]

The timing of the mines blown on 1st July 1916 became controversial when that at Beaumont Hamel was detonated ten minutes before Zero.[21] This fatal error not only gave the Germans the perfect warning that the attack had finally come but also disrupted the timings of the crucial barrage lifts in the whole sector, denying the attacking infantry the protection of their own guns so that troops could try to seize the crater in advance of the main attack. This was not proposed at La Boisselle where initially the Lochnagar mine was ordered to be fired at one minute before Zero and the Y Sap Mine at Zero. Within a few days orders were amended so that Lochnagar was to be blown two minutes before Zero, then both mines were to be blown at this time.[22] This was probably prompted by caution over the attackers being injured by falling debris and the danger of a slight delay in the mines firing. Two minutes were in fact more than adequate for the debris to fall but it required precise coordination of the firing of the mine and the advance by the infantry. The infantry were eager to get across no man’s land as soon as their barrage moved on to the next line of defences, before the Germans could open fire, but the mining officer in the trenches had to fire the mine exactly to synchronise with the artillery barrage and the infantry attack. The decision as to the timing will not have been Hance’s although he may have been consulted and will have had a view. He had been awarded the Military Cross for charging and firing a mine on 15th June 1915 at Givenchy, which had killed a Canadian officer and buried other attackers. As with Lochnagar, it was overcharged because it had not reached as far as the German line and was also blown two minutes before zero.[23]

Aerial PhotographRes

Aerial photograph with British and German mining south of the Glory Hole prior to Zero on 1st July 1916. (c) Landesarchiv Baden Württemberg/ Annotations (C) Simon Jones.

Charging the Mine

As Hance calculated the quantity of explosives needed at Lochnagar and Y Sap he will have known of no one else in history who had created such large explosions.  He would place 40,000 pounds (18.1 tonnes) at Y Sap and two charges of 30,000 pounds (13.6 tonnes) at Lochnagar.  The left branch at Lochnagar was roughly at ninety degrees to the German trench while the longer right branch approached it at about forty-five. Therefore he divided the charges unevenly, placing 24,000 pounds in the left branch and 36,000 in the longer right branch. The two chambers were not large enough for the charges which would overflow into the branch galleries back to the junction and the charges would form one massive crater. The combined 60,000 pounds (27.2 tonnes) would therefore give 179th Tunnelling Company the record for the largest mine yet blown by the British.[24]  At the same time 179th would fire two 8,000 pound ‘camouflet’ charges in the Inch Street system to destroy the German galleries, this meant that a total of 116,000 pounds (52.6 tonnes) had to be carried into the front line and down the long tunnels.

Since 5th June, 179th had known that the attack would be preceded by five days of preparatory bombardment and gas attacks, during which time the trenches were to be kept as empty as possible. As well as the danger of some of the British shells falling short, the Germans were very likely to respond with counter shelling and they needed to complete charging before this began, although the date was yet to be announced. Bullock described how the explosive for the Lochnagar mine and the two camouflets was brought up by night in horse drawn wagons to a chateau just behind the lines at Bécourt, which also housed a medical unit and Brigade headquarters:

much to the anxiety of the Brigade Major, who certainly had reason for his fears since, should this have been exploded, which was quite likely considering that the Germans were frequently bombarding this place, he and his staff and the dressing station would all have gone sky high.[25]

Every night for about a week, infantry parties carried over one and a half thousand boxes, each containing 50 pounds of the ammonal explosive, up to the mine entrances:

I or one of the other Tunnelling Officers had always to meet these parties in order to see that the work was duly carried out and at the same time guide them through the trenches. As may be imagined, this was not a task particularly enjoyed by those concerned, as, not only was it very heavy work, as the trenches at that time were wet and greasy, but the job of carrying explosive about with the likelihood of shells dropping amongst you was not a particularly desirable one. By the time the Infantry had been on this work for two or three nights the general impression amongst them was that we were getting up enough explosive to blow Fritz back to Berlin.[26]

The boxes were about a foot square and, according to one of the Grimsby Chums, each infantrymen had to take up two:

… we carried ammonal up to the mouth of a mine-shaft, in square wooden boxes, each containing 50 lb., two being nailed together with narrow strips of wood which served as handles. On the first night we were in a trench behind the château, awaiting the order to move off, when we were startled by a shower of 5.9’s, and a near-stampede followed. Fortunately, those in front moved off briskly, and those behind lost no time in following. The boxes were delivered in record time![27]

During the day they decanted the ammonal explosive into rubberized canvas bags to keep it dry during the two weeks that it would lie in the chamber. Each bag contained about thirty pounds and for the Lochnagar charges they filled 2,000 bags. One tunneller described decanting as:

a dangerous and unpleasant job, the ammonal dust staining everything it came in contact with, including arms and faces, a violent and lasting yellow.[28]

The charging of Lochnagar was begun by Captain James Young and Lieutenant Ralph Fox and they expected to get the job about half complete before they were relieved after 48 hours.  They did not use the wheeled trolleys for fear of alerting the Germans and the quantity of men needed soon ate up all the available oxygen in the cramped, 900 foot tunnel.  When Bullock and Second Lieutenant Alexander McKay took over, they found only about twenty bags loaded. Rather than trying to carry the bags down the tunnel, they organised the men as a human chain along the entire length, while the officers took it in turn to stack the bags in the chambers and branch galleries:

We determined to get along with the thing as quickly as possible and took eight hour spells in the face each with periodical trips up and down the gallery in order to keep the Infantry passing bags from one to another at full speed. This could only be done by having the men spaced every two yards, thus curtailing the distance each man had to carry.[29]

Q115 IWM Collections

In this staged photograph, a Tunnelling officer demonstrates a geophone listening device while the miners appear to be putting in tamping for a mine charge. In reality, the geophone was too sensitive to be used when men were working in the vicinity. (C) IWM Q115

 

All the time they were conscious of the Germans above and below but, so long as they could hear them, they knew that they were not going to blow.  The German routine was to stop work between midnight and 7am: it was during this silent period that there was the greatest risk of being blown but 179th could not stop work. By 7am they had loaded about 400 bags and anxiously waited for the Germans to resume: instead there was a further silence that Bullock found ominous and terrifying:

we all thought that the Boche must have tumbled to what we were doing, and we half expected to have the whole thing blown up any minute, the only consolation being that we should not know what had happened.[30]

Finally, after an hour, the Germans started work as normal; Bullock never understood the reason for the delay. Later that morning they had half the charge loaded and the detonators and leads prepared for embedding in the charges.  Both charges at Lochnagar required twelve detonators, connected in series, each inserted into a guncotton primer, which were placed inside charge bags and buried evenly throughout the explosives, plus a complete back-up system of another twelve detonators in case the first failed.  It was the most dangerous part of the work, carried out by the officers in the chambers, surrounded by hundred of stacked bags of explosives. Bullock and McKay had all the detonators in, the leads connected and the two chambers about three-quarters charged when Young came up that afternoon to take over.  He expected to check that the detonators were in correctly and the leads properly connected, but Bullock and McKay had worked much faster than he anticipated – one senses rivalry between the shifts and the officers – and Young had no choice but to report to Hance that everything was in order.  By the following morning they had completed the charging and begun backfilling, or tamping, the tunnel.  They had stored hundreds of sandbags of chalk along the gallery in readiness and used them to block the tunnel solidly for 350 feet from the branch.

 Zero

On 23rd June Fourth Army ordered that the bombardment should begin the following day, this would make Zero day the 29th. On the afternoon of 28th June, six officers detailed by Hance to fire the four mines went to the headquarters of 34th Division for their final instructions for the attack the following day.  The firing of Lochnagar was the task of James Young and Second Lieutenant Ralph Fox, Stanley Bullock and Alexander McKay would blow the two mines in Inch Street, and Y Sap was blown by Captain Hugh Kerr and Lieutenant Ralph Hawtrey. They learned that Zero Hour was to be at 7.30 a.m. and that they were to detonate the four mines two minutes before. They set their watches by one at headquarters which in turn had been synchronised with others sent to each headquarters all along the attack front. No sooner had they reached the front line, after a long journey through trenches packed with troops preparing for the attack, than they were ordered to return: Zero had been postponed for two days to 1st July. Bad weather had prevented accurate bombardment of the German positions and more shelling was needed.

Hawtrey, Young, Bullock 28 June 1916res

Ralph Hawtrey, James Young and Stanley Bullock, 179th Tunnelling Company, in Albert on 28th June 1916, prior to leaving for the front line for the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Ralph Hawtrey was killed at High Wood in September. (c) Mrs. A. Russell and Simon Jones

When the firing party went up for the second time the German retaliation had begun: the shrapnel shells bursting in the air was ‘one of the most brilliant displays of fireworks’ that Bullock had ever seen.[31]

The firing leads were run back to dugouts close to the front line, where in the early morning, the six tunnelling officers were checking and re-checking the firing circuits by passing through a low current from a battery to flick the needle of a galvanometer. Even though they had used twin sets of leads for each mine, sudden shelling could cause a breakage that might be impossible to find and repair. All the effort would have been wasted and the attackers would lose the advantage that the mines promised. At 6.25 a.m., the British bombardment resumed with a fierce new intensity.

The infantrymen who were to attack near to the two mines had been warned to stay out of any unsupported dugouts, to beware of falling debris and to expect craters 150 yards across. A whole section of the British front line which jutted out immediately to the right of where Lochnagar was to explode was evacuated by the 10th Lincolns (Grimsby Chums) owing to the danger. To the left, in the Tyneside Scottish someone in the first wave shouted to his men five minutes before Zero, ‘NOW! Get hold of the parapet boys, she’s going up’.[32]

Opposite, mostly deep in their dugouts and the cellars of La Boisselle, men from Baden of the 110th Reserve Infantry Regiment had endured a week of torment from explosions, thirst and hunger. But in most places, although their trenches were in ruins, the dugouts held up against the British shells and only to the south of the Schwabenhöhe had heavy mortars caused some to collapse.

At 7.28 a.m. Stanley Bullock rammed down the handle of his exploder to fire the first of the Inch Street mines. After the merest pause, he felt the ground beneath him shudder, a few seconds later another shake of the ground told him that Young had successfully fired Lochnagar:

In the suspense which ensued before I felt the next mine explode, there was no thought for the destruction of life and waste of material when thousands of tons of explosives disappeared into space, only that orders should be faithfully obeyed.[33]

McKay then pressed his plunger home; they did not notice the Y Sap mine go up but Kerr fired it successfully. On the ground, the shockwaves of the mines were felt far more than heard, there was no bang, either on the Somme or in England as was claimed much later;[34] but 8,000 feet above the battlefield the sound waves reached a pilot who had been warned to keep clear of La Boisselle but turned his machine to observe the detonations of Lochnagar and Y Sap:

… the earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar, drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earthy column rose, higher and higher to almost four thousand feet. There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris. A moment later came the second mine. Again the roar, the upflung machine, the strange gaunt silhouette invading the sky. Then the dust cleared and we saw the two white eyes of the craters.[35]

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2379)

‘The Great Mine, La Boisselle’, the Lochnagar Mine depicted by the artist William Orpen in 1917. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2379)

An officer of the 3rd Tyneside Scottish, in the second wave to the left of the Lochnagar mine, was exalted:

…we witnessed a most wonderful spectacle. A huge column of chalk was thrown up several hundred feet into the air and came down in a beautiful white cascade. [36]

One of the Grimsby Chums described ‘the whole ground around swaying and rocking as with an earthquake’ and another, who braced his leg against the trench, had it broken by the shock wave.[37] They felt the ground sway three times and saw a crust of earth rise and bursting from it a core of amber:

great pieces of earth as big as coal wagons were blasted skywards to hurtle and roll and then start to scream back all around us. A great geyser of mud, chalk and flame had risen and subsided before our gaze.[38]

Another likened the swaying of the ground to the plate of a weighing machine:

Looking over the parapet, one saw a huge wall rise to some three hundred feet, composed of chalk, mud, dust, timber, etc., with here and there a German. [39]

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

The Lochnagar crater, shortly after it was blown, showing the location of the two charges. From The Work of the Royal Engineers in the European War, 1914-19. Military Mining (Chatham, 1922).

The Lochnagar mine hurled up 84,000 tonnes of earth and chalk and left a crater 220 feet across and 55 feet deep.[40]  The debris buried 600 feet of the German front line and the Baden infantry in the dugouts had no chance: some were instantly fragmented, some hurled into the air, crushed, or would die slowly trapped 30 feet underground.  At Y Sap the mine completely destroyed the German advanced position, leaving a high-lipped crater 130 feet wide but, having detected the British digging beneath them, the Germans had withdrawn back to their front line and suffered no casualties.

Two minutes after the mines detonated came Zero. As the British guns lifted their fire from the German front line to the positions behind, 4,000 heavily burdened British soldiers climbed out of their trenches and began walking across the overgrown fields of no man’s land while, behind them, another 4,000 surged forward. Soon more would advance, for the commander of the 34th Division had deployed all his 12,000 infantry at once against La Boisselle.

Apart from around the Lochnagar mine and in places south of the Schwabenhöhe, the deep German dugouts had withstood the British bombardment. The mine explosions and the lifting of the British barrage alerted the Baden infantrymen that the long-expected attack had arrived.  The survivors emerged from dugouts with machine guns and rifles to open fire on the rows of soldiers advancing in orderly lines through the long grass and sweeping down the slopes behind in columns.  Within two minutes of setting out, the leading attackers were struck by the German machine gun and rifle fire.  Many of the Grimsby Chums and 11th Suffolks were hit before they had even passed their own front line, having been pulled back to avoid the Lochnagar mine debris. The pace of the advance was carefully regulated to keep behind the protective British barrage but as the men at the front faltered, those following caught up and the bunched men formed perfect targets. Within ten minutes eighty percent of the leading battalions were hit. The losses suffered by the 34th Division attacking at La Boisselle were the worst of any on the 1st July 1916.[41] Urmiston was correct in his prediction about heavy German fire, except that it was experienced by all the attacking battalions. However, the Lochnagar mine successfully destroyed a section of the German front line. The destruction enabled the attackers to penetrate the German front line and advance beyond it until, counterattacked, they were forced back to the area of the crater.[42] In his report on the mine, Hance claimed that the mine had benefited the attackers by causing ‘considerable loss’ to the Germans and that:

by the violence of the shock to his garrison, and the shelter afforded by the lips of the crater itself, enabled our attacking infantry to reach his trenches here, and to pass over them in the first assault, with comparatively light loss. Such loss as was incurred must have been caused by fire from his flank. The infantry were also on Z night to establish themselves inside this crater, forming an advance position in front of our original trenches.[43]

Attack of 34th Division (Official History)

The attack of the 34th Division on 1st July 1916 (British Official History).

The Kerriemuir Russian Sap was intended to allow the re-supply of the captured front line in just such an eventuality. By the night before Zero, the 179th was supposed to have prepared the tunnel with just two feet of cover left before it broke the surface, three-quarters of the way across no man’s land. The final work of opening it immediately the mines were blown was the task of a platoon of the 18th Northumberland Fusiliers Pioneers under Lieutenant John Nixon.  On the evening of 30th June, however, Nixon was shocked to learn that his men would have to dig through twelve feet of chalk to open the tunnel, a full day’s work. They therefore began the task at midnight and managed to open the Kerriemuir tunnel an hour after Zero, and it was used later in the afternoon to feed men through to reinforce the captured German line in the Schwabenhöhe (it was not, as was claimed later, connected to the Lochnagar mine crater).[44]

Q 49394

A burial mound in the bottom of the Lochnagar Crater, September 1917. (c) IWM Q49394.

Although the Lochnagar mine gave some assistance to the British attack, Germans losses caused by the explosion were subject to a confused and exaggerated claim from the British side. The GHQ Inspector of Mines, Brigadier-General R. N. Harvey, visited a week after the attack and spoke to the 179th officers who had been on duty. He later described the effect that the Lochnagar mine was believed to have had on the Germans:

We reckoned we closed in 9 deep dug-outs, each with an officer and 35 men – for prisoners were taken from the next dug-out, they were all marched out and the officer said there were 9 other dug-outs with the same numbers of inhabitants as his, i.e. 9 x 1 officer and 35 men – 9 officers and 315 men.  As a result, our troops went over with few casualties.[45]

The British Official Historian erroneously ascribed Harvey’s claim to the Y Sap mine rather than Lochnagar but neither Harvey’s estimate of the German losses nor his claim of light casualties to the attackers are supported by the evidence and there is no record of any British attempt to excavate German dugouts collapsed or destroyed by the mine.[46] German records show that nothing like the number of men referred to by Harvey was holding the affected front line which was part of the sector of the 5th Company of 110th Reserve Infantry Regiment. An analysis of casualty reports shows that this company suffered 109 casualties between 27th June and 3rd July, of which 35 were reported as killed or missing (killed) on 1st July.[47] It is possible therefore that the garrison of no more than one German dugout was lost as a result of the explosion of the Lochnagar mine.

La Boisselle fell to the British on 4th July, but James Young did not see the crater of the Lochnagar mine before he was wounded on 8th July. He survived the war, and died in 1949.

After the Y Sap crater was filled in during the 1970s, the Englishman Richard Dunning purchased the crater to ensure its preservation to which aim the Friends of Lochnagar work today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Lochnagar Crater today (Wikimedia Commons).


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The Lochnagar Mine: References

[1] Information about underground warfare at the Glory Hole can be found at http://www.laboisselleproject.com/.

[2] Details about the progress of the Lochnagar mine are from War Diaries of 185th and 179th Tunnelling Companies, and reports in brigade and divisional War Diaries in the UK National Archives.

[3] [War Office], Military Engineering Vol. IV Demolitions and Mining, (London, 1923), p. 143.

[4] 21/10/1915 Reports by John Norton-Griffiths, National Archives WO158/129.

[5] J. Young, ‘Notes on 179 Company R.E.’, Tunnellers’ Old Comrades Association Bulletin, No. 13, (1938), pp. 70-72.

[6] Possibly Richardson intended a ‘fougasse’, whereby the effect of burying the German trenches with a mass of debris was increased by first blowing a shallow mine then immediately afterwards a deeper charge.

[7] J. W. Burrows, The Essex Regiment 9th, 10th, 11th, 13th & 15th Battalions, (Southend-on-Sea, n.d.), p. 149.

[8] 53 Brigade WD, Intelligence Report 23-24/1/16; Brigade Operations Report 30/1-5/2/16; R. Whitehead, The Other Side of the Wire, Vol. 1, (Solihull, 2010), pp. 354-357.

[9] Young, ‘Notes on 179 Company R.E.’, op. cit.

[10] H.M. Hance, letter to J. E. Edmonds, June 1930, CAB45/134.

[11] Young, ‘Notes on 179 Company R.E.’, op. cit.

[12] Hance to Edmonds, op. cit.

[13] Mining plans, 179th and 185th Tunnelling Companies, National Archives, WO153/904.

[14] Bullock, ‘Exploits in the First World War’, op. cit.

[15] H.M. Hance, Weekly Mine Report, 5/7/16, 34 Division GS War Diary.

[16] Kriegstagebücher, Pionierbataillon Nr. 13, 1. Reserve-Kompanie M414 Bd. 251-260, Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart.

[17] Young, ‘Notes on 179 Company R.E.’, op. cit.

[18] R.U.H. Buckland, ‘Experiences At Fourth Army Headquarters’, Royal Engineers Journal, 1927, p. 386.

[19] T.S. transcript of interview with H. R. Kerr by A. Barrie, c. 1959, Barrie Papers, Royal Engineers Museum.

[20] A.G.B. Urmston, letter to J. E. Edmonds, 11/6/1930, National Archives, CAB45/191.

[21] S. Jones, Underground Warfare 1914-1918, (Barnsley, 2010), pp. 118-120.

[22] III Corps Operation Order No. 70, 20/6/1916 III Corps GS War Diary; 103 Infantry Brigade Operation Order No. 24, 21/6/16 103 Brigade GS War Diary; 101 Brigade Operation Order No. 34 23/6/16, 101 Brigade GS War Diary.

[23] 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery War Diary; 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion War Diary; A. Fortescue Duguid, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War 1914-1919, General Series Vol. I, (Ottawa, 1938), pp. 487-489.

[24] The largest mine on the Western Front was 50 tonnes, blown by the Germans at Vauquois on 14 May 1916; the largest British mine of the war was 43.2 tonne mine blown at St. Eloi on 7 June 1917. See S. Jones, Underground Warfare 1914-1918, op. cit., pp. 63-64.

[25] Bullock, ‘Exploits in the First World War’, op. cit.

[26] Bullock, op. cit.

[27] Unidentified soldier of the 10th Lincolns quoted E. Swinton (ed.), Twenty Years After, Vol. 2, (London, n.d.), p.928.

[28] J.C. Neill (ed.), The New Zealand Tunnelling Company 1915-1919, (Auckland, 1922), p. 47.

[29] Bullock, op. cit.

[30] ibid.

[31] ibid.

[32] Pte Elliott, 20/Northumberland Fusiliers (Tyneside Scottish), quoted G. Stewart & J. Sheen, Tyneside Scottish, (Barnsley, 1999), p. 97.

[33] S. C. Bullock, Address to Rotarians, (n.d.), unpublished T.S., courtesy Mrs. A. Russell.

[34] There is no evidence of anyone claiming to have heard mine explosions in England on 1st July 1916. This is apparently confused with the claim of the Prime Minister Lloyd George to have heard the detonation of the Messines mines on 7th June 1917, which itself is implausible: it is more likely that he heard the opening artillery salvo.

[35] Lewis appears to have greatly over-estimated the height to which the debris was thrown by the explosion. Cecil Lewis, Sagittarius Rising, (London, 1977), p. 89.

[36] Capt. Herries, 22/Northumberland Fusiliers (Tyneside Scottish), quoted G. Stewart & J. Sheen, Tyneside Scottish, (Barnsley, 1999), p. 98.

[37] Lt Col E K Cordeaux, quoted in P. Bryant, Grimsby Chums: the Story of the 10th Lincolnshires in the Great War, (Hull 1990), p. 58; M. Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme 1 July 1916, (London, 1971), p. 120.

[38] Pte. H. Baumber quoted in P. Bryant, Grimsby Chums: the Story of the 10th Lincolnshires in the Great War, (Hull 1990), p. 56-57.

[39] Unidentified soldier of the 10th Lincolns quoted in E. D. Swinton (ed.), Twenty Years After, Vol. 2, (London, n.d.), p.928.

[40] Information from M. and T. Beech, Multi-Limn Survey, pers. comm. via P. Barton, 2013.

[41] J. E. Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium, 1916, Vol. 1 (London, 1932), pp. 375-384.

[42] R. Whitehead, The Other Side of the Wire, Vol. 1, (Solihull, 2013), Vol. 2, pp. 296-7.

[43] H.M. Hance, Weekly Mine Report, 5/7/16, 34 Division GS War Diary.

[44] A map in the British official history erroneously shows the tunnel running into the Lochnagar crater, J. E. Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium, 1916, Vol. 1, op. cit., Map Volume, map 8.

[45] R.N. Harvey, letter to J. E. Edmonds, n.d. (c. 1930) CAB45/189.

[46] J. E. Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium, 1916, Vol. 1, op. cit. p. 382, fn.

[47] My grateful thanks go to Ralph Whitehead for collating and providing this data. The number killed or missing but not taken prisoner on 1st July was 35, and another eight missing but not prisoners during the period, i.e. a total of 43 men. See also R. Whitehead, The Other Side of the Wire, Vol. 2, (Solihull, 2013).

(c) Simon Jones


Rossignol Wood

Rossignol Wood

Rossignol Wood, shell craters and trenches.

It is more than thirty years since I first stumbled across this wood on the northern part of the Somme battlefield. Rossignol, or Nightingale, Wood seldom features in the usual histories or battlefield itineraries but it clearly showed evidence of fierce fighting: deep trenches running along the edges, smashed concrete bunkers and collapsed dugouts, shell holes and heaps of German grenades, while in the adjacent ploughed field lay British shell fuses.  Two small British cemeteries are close by and one, uniquely for a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, holds more German burials than British. Subsequent visits and research over the years have revealed the story of the fighting at the wood and also its association with some of the most remarkable personalities of the war.

Rossignol Wood view from German trench

Rossignol Wood, the view from German trench.

Fighting came to the wood in February and March 1917 when the Germans withdrew from the old Somme battlefield to the Hindenburg Line. Strong German rearguards caused heavy casualties to the North and South Staffords and the Bradford Pals.  Immediately to the west, the 18th Durham Light Infantry captured the German line. For his part a young Second Lieutenant, James Barker Bradford, received the Military Cross but died of his wounds. He was the third in age of the four famous Bradford brothers, two of whom went on to receive a posthumous Victoria Cross.

German grenades in Rossignol Wood

German grenades in Rossignol Wood.

The Germans withdrew later in March only to retake the ground a year later during the 1918 spring offensive when they were halted a short distance away at Hébuterne. In April 1918 the Lincolns and the Somersets attempted to capture the wood but were forced out. Their chaplain, Theodore Hardy DSO MC, went into the wood and, with the help of a sergeant, managed to bring a man back. For his actions, including tending a wounded man near a German bunker which still survives in Rossignol Wood, Hardy was awarded the Victoria Cross. He died of wounds in October 1918, the most highly decorated non-combatant of the First World War.

Rossignol Wood German bunker

Rossignol Wood, German bunker.

In July 1918 the German infantry officer Ernst Jünger came to Rossignol Wood. The author of The Storm of Steel,  the most famous German memoir of the First World War, Jünger also wrote an account of the period that he spent at the wood, entitled Copse 125 after its German name. The book culminates in a grenade attack immediately to the south of the wood against New Zealand troops among whom was Sergeant Dick Travis DCM MM of the Otago Regiment. Travis helped beat off the attack and captured two machine guns but was killed the following day; he received a posthumous Victoria Cross and is regarded as New Zealand’s greatest soldier.

Rossignol Wood Cemetery

New Zealand graves in front of German burials in Rossignol Wood Cemetery. The cemetery contains 41 Commonwealth and 70 German burials.


Isaac Rosenberg

‘Words, Music and Landscapes,’ 25th-28th July 2017, is a four-day tour of the Western Front looking at the lives of war poets and composers.


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Virtual Tour of Trenches and Tunnels excavated at La Boisselle

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Click on the above image to access high-quality interactive panoramas created by PAN360 show the archaeological excavation of the battlefield at La Boisselle on the Somme in 2012.  Then click on the circles on the map.  The trenches and tunnels date from 1914-1916 when there was fierce fighting over the sector which was called by the British the ‘Glory Hole’. A three-year excavation phase has ended and reports are being completed for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Direction régionale des affaires culturelles Picardie. More information about the project is on the La Boisselle Study Group website.


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Why the poet Isaac Rosenberg is not shown in First World War archive footage

A story in the Observer newspaper states that the poet Isaac Rosenberg has been identified in archive footage in which a stretcher bearer in the front right of the frame is ‘staring out at the camera with a haunted look’ (photo below). The article states that the date and location of the film are yet to be identified.

The soldier in the bottom righthand corner is believed to be first world war poet Isaac RosenbergHowever I recognised the still as showing the same scene as a photograph by the British official photographer J. Warwick Brooke (Q 5732) (below) which enables the footage to be identified as having been taken on 31 July 1917 at Pilckem, on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres.

Q 5732

Furthermore, the photograph caption identifies a wounded man being treated as an officer of the Irish Guards. The ‘Rosenberg’ figure is not in the Brooke photograph but another stretcher bearer is clearly recognisable (identified by the ‘S B’ armband) standing on the right. This man can also be seen to be wearing a distinctive cloth ‘Irish Guards’ badge on his shoulder and this badge can also just be discerned on the ‘Rosenberg’ figure. Rosenberg served with the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (attached for a time to the Royal Engineers) rather than the Irish Guards and whilst, on occasion, he did duty carrying wounded there is no evidence that he was a regimental stretcher bearer. On the day that the photograph was taken the 40th Division, in which Rosenberg was serving at the time, was about 60 miles to the south and did not take part in the Third Battle of Ypres.


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Yellow Cross: the advent of Mustard Gas in 1917


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Yellow Cross: the advent of Mustard Gas in 1917

In July 1917, on the eve of the Third Battle of Ypres, the Germans introduced two new chemical weapons to the battlefield.  One was a failure, the other a spectacular success.  The story of their use illustrates one of the lessons of chemical weapons from the First World War: the impossibility of predicting how they would behave in the field.[1]While gas played a comparatively minor role on the battlefield in 1916, it would become ubiquitous by the end of the following year.  Chemical warfare in 1917 was characterised by the British introduction of a new and effective means of delivery for chemical agents, the Livens projector, and by the German introduction of a new agent for artillery shells, mustard gas.  This article focuses on the introduction and impact of mustard gas.

All the combatants used colour-coded markings on their shells, and the Germans used a system to simplify the complex varieties of chemical fillings according to their function.  The existing diphosgene shells and others containing lethal lung irritant gas, which might dissipate in a few hours and was regarded as non-persistent, were marked with a green cross.  In July 1917 as the preparations for the Third Battle of Ypres were underway, the Germans introduced two new chemical agents, neither of which can accurately be described as a gas.

Blue Cross Shell

German Blue Cross shell for the 77mm field gun, showing the glass bottle containing the chemical embedded in the explosives.

The first was diphenyl chloroarsine, or Blue Cross.  The concept of these shells was not in themselves to cause death or injury, but to penetrate the respirator filters using a fine particulate dust, causing uncontrollable sneezing and coughing which would force the wearers to remove their respirator and succumb to lethal diphosgene shell.  The ‘mask-breaker’ shells were coded with a blue cross.  If effectively disseminated, the arsenic dust could cause intense pain to the sinuses and mental depression.  However, two factors served to diminish the effect of these shells.  Firstly the Germans chose as their method of dissemination to embed a glass bottle containing the powder in a high explosive shell and this rarely produced particles fine enough to penetrate the British respirator filters.  Secondly, the British had already introduced this concept with stannic chloride and between April and June 1917 had issued a particulate filter as an extension for their respirator to protect their own troops in the Ypres Salient.  Moreover, they had under development a new filter box incorporating the filter which they began issuing in July.  The Blue Cross shells however had the advantage of being effectively indistinguishable in flight and detonation from normal high explosive shells, thus soldiers had no warning of the bursting of the shells and might succumb before they could adjust their masks.

Strandfest: the first use of Blue Cross at Nieuwpoort, 10 July 1917

The Germans introduced Blue Cross shells during their operation to retake the bridgehead at Nieuwpoort (Nieuport) from which they rightly suspected that the recently arrived British were to launch an operation along the Belgian coast.  They amassed 146 batteries for this small, local action, under the codename Strandfest (which might roughly translate as ‘Beach Party’).  Because of bad weather the attack date was shifted several times, until early on 10 July orders were issued for a ten-hour preparatory bombardment to commence at 10am.  In addition to diphosgene (Green Cross) and tear gas shells, the British reported another type which burst like a high explosive shell but caused sneezing, slight irritation of the nose and eyes, and tightness of the chest.  At 8pm the German 3rd Marine Division stormed the British positions and threw them back over the Yser.  Despite taking 1,250 British prisoners, the Germans were apparently unable to establish how useful the new Blue Cross shells had actually been in achieving the success.[2]

In order to obtain evidence of the effectiveness of both the Blue Cross shells and the method of combining them with Green Cross, the Germans staged a major raid on 28 July at Wytschaete, south of Ypres.  Code-named, Heuernte or ‘Hay Making,’ the operation involved bombarding British positions at 10.40pm for six minutes by nine light field howitzer batteries with 100 rounds each of Blue Cross ammunition.  This was followed by 14 minutes of high explosives after which five raiding parties entered the British trenches.  They found however that the British had withdrawn from the shelled area and no prisoners were obtained.

British investigations following the 10 July attack where also inconclusive.  There were reports of the new symptoms but they were unable to recover an unexploded shell in order to identify the filling until early August.  The more dramatic use of mustard gas shortly afterwards also delayed investigation of the Blue Cross shells.  This occurred on the night of 12-13 July.

The development of Mustard Gas

While Blue Cross was developed as an attack ammunition for use in conjunction with Green Cross, mustard was adopted as a defensive agent which was suitable for the continuous poisoning of an area.  Mustard gas, dichlorodiethyl sulphide, is in fact an oily liquid with a low boiling point, given the name mustard gas by the British owing to its odour of mustard or horseradish in its impure form.  It was to become the most effective chemical agent used during the First World War owing not to the numbers which it killed but to the temporary effects of skin blistering and severe conjunctivitis and to its ability to render ground uninhabitable owing to the time which it took to evaporate.  Its effect on the skin was noted by Viktor Meyer in 1886 but both the British and French considered adopting mustard in 1916 but rejected it on the grounds of its lack of toxicity.  Professor Ernest Starling, in charge of British anti-gas research, had ordered experiments on cats in 1916.  However, the persistency of mustard, the way that it continued to poison for hours or days after release, was not noticed and the range being only that of a bursting shell it was turned down.

The Germans named it ‘Lost’ after the names of the proposers: Dr Wilhelm Lommel at the Bayer research laboratories and Dr Wilhelm Steinkopf at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.  Trials were carried in September and October 1916 out by Doctors Ferdinand Flury and Curt Wachtel, toxicologists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.  Their tests results on monkeys demonstrated eye and respiratory injury but made no mention of skin symptoms.  Wachtel later described how, in late 1916, mustard came to be adopted. [3]  The head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and also head of the German chemical warfare programme, Fritz Haber, learnt from the German commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff that they required a defensive gas suitable for preventing Allied attacks expected in the summer of 1917.  Haber was able to propose the newly tested mustard gas which would remain dangerous for long after the gas shell then in use had dissipated and industrial production was initiated.  Haber’s son, L F Haber, however suggests that, while mustard was selected because of its persistency, its effect was still expected to be as a lethal lung-irritant rather than the non-lethal casualty producer that it in fact turned out to be: ‘No one appears to have remembered that Meyer, thirty years earlier, had written of its blistering action.’[4]

The lack of lethal effect was in fact noted before it was used in the field, according to Wachtel, following a serious explosion at the Adlershof gas shell filling plant, near Berlin, in the spring of 1917.  Occurring after the first 1,200 77mm shells had been prepared, this explosion delayed the first use of mustard by several weeks.  But a lack of casualties during the fire fighting and cleanup led to claims that it was not sufficiently toxic which had to be refuted with further toxicology tests.  A trial was conducted in which 500 mustard shells were fired on a test range on which several hundred cats and dogs were tethered.  Before its use in the field, mustard was dismissed by most gas warfare experts as being the best means to kill cats but not as a war gas. [5]

German Yellow Cross mustard gas shell for 105mm howitzer.

German Yellow Cross mustard gas shell for 105mm howitzer.

The First Mustard Gas Bombardment, 12-13 July 1917

The new shells were marked with a yellow cross to indicate their persistency.  The first bombardments which the Germans carried out at Ypres were clearly intended to forestall the British offensive.  From the start, mustard was a defensive agent, used to poison areas of ground over which the Germans had no intention of attacking over in the foreseeable future.  Some 50,000 shells containing 125 tonnes of mustard were used on this first night. [6]  The bombardment, with 77mm and 105mm shells, was in three phases apparently reflecting the way that non-persistent gas clouds were created and topped up using shells: starting at 10.10pm for twenty minutes, it resumed at 1230, again for twenty minutes, followed by a third phase at 1.55am for twenty-five minutes.[7]

On detonation the shells, bursting with a dull plop, sprayed the liquid in a seven metre radius in the case of the 77mm and about 10 metres in the case of the 105mm.[8]  Contact with either the liquid or the vapour, which evaporated in sunlight, caused injury.  However, the lack of any immediate symptoms meant that troops did not keep their masks on and did not appreciate the danger of being present in the vicinity of the shells.  At first those in the bombardment suffered only slight irritation of the nose which caused some sneezing (perhaps the result of Blue Cross shells).  However, in an hour or two they suffered painful inflammation of the eyes, vomiting, followed by reddening of the skin and blistering.

45 Bde WD 12 July 1917

The first mustard gas bombardment reported in the War Diary of the 45th Infantry Brigade, 12 July 1917. (The National Archives, WO95/1943)

Large numbers of casualties began to report to medical units.  The first were admitted to Numbers 47 and 61 Casualty Clearing Stations at Dozinghem (near Poperinge) and Numbers 46 and 64 at Mendinghem (near Proven) and on 13-14 July a total of 2,143 were admitted to these four units.  By the time they reached the Casualty Clearing Station the conjunctivitis had developed so rapidly that they were virtually blind and had to be led in files, each man holding on to the man in front, guided by an orderly or lightly wounded man.  In the first few hours the symptoms were in strong contrast to those usually found in gas cases, with only one or two casualties suffering from symptoms of acute pulmonary oedema (again this was possibly caused by Green Cross shells mixed with the new shells).  The majority suffered little distress to their breathing, although some exhibited a husky voice and a hard cough.  After a few more hours symptoms of laryngitis, tracheitis and bronchitis became more definite in a large number of the cases and some developed grave or fatal broncho-pneumonia. [9]

c080027 C-080027

Canadian victim of mustard gas at No.7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, c. 1917 (Library and Archives Canada/ Wikimedia).

Men developed blisters on their buttocks, genitals and armpits.  Within two days many were suffering from bronchitis and some had died from inflammation of the lungs.  By the sixth day the conjunctivitis which caused the blindness had disappeared but the breathing difficulties were still severe and the blistering had been replaced by skin rashes.

Of the 2,143 cases admitted to the four Casualty Clearing Stations, a comparatively small number, 95, or 4.4%, died.  German unit histories report that the British guns were all but silenced for up to two days.

Up to the end of July, the Germans bombarded the Ypres area every night with mustard, during which the Germans gunners had to surround their own gun positions with chloride of lime as a precaution against leaks or premature bursts of the shells.  In addition, a series of set piece gas shoots were conducted.  On 15 July a ‘multi-coloured’ shoot of a thousand rounds was carried out, which despite barrel bursts was repeated the following day.  Then on 17th and again on 21st more extensive gas shoots were carried out on tracks, shelters and accommodation at Zillebeke Lake.

On the night of 20-21 July Blue and Green Cross were again tried in combination in an operation called Britentod or ‘British death,’ postponed from the previous night owing to strong winds.  British battery positions at Voormezele were targeted, each German field battery having been issued with 900 rounds of Green Cross and each howitzer battery 350 rounds of Blue Cross.  The bombardment, from 1am to 3am, completely silenced the British batteries although no mention is made of mustard having been used.

On the same night 20-21 July, in an operation called Totentanz, or ‘Dance of Death,’ Armentières was first targeted with mustard gas, injuring about 6,400.  The following night 21-22 July, Nieuwpoort was heavily bombarded with mustard, thus the south and north flanks successively of the expected British attack area were rendered impassable.  The casualties were worse overall than those suffered at Ypres as the troops here had not yet received adequate warning and instructions regarding mustard gas.

On 23-24 July Britentod was repeated, then on 26-27 gas bombardments in the Wytschaete sector named Schlesien and Apolda.  On 28-29 July renewed gas bombardments of Armentières and Nieuwpoort was carried out between 1am and 4.30am.  The civilian casualties from mustard gas in Armentieres totalled 675, of which 86 had died by 18 August, a high mortality due in part to the number of elderly citizens, many living in cellars, who were either unable or reluctant to leave the area while the shelling was in progress.

From July, Blue and Yellow Cross shells were used in very large numbers with a reduction only coming in the winter of 1917-18.  Once the Germans had identified the improved protection afforded by the British respirator against Blue Cross, they came to use these shells at the beginning of a gas bombardment, as the shells could not be distinguished from HE shell.  The sneezing symptoms would therefore affect men before they could adjust their masks and then cause them to succumb to Green Cross shells used subsequently.  HE or Blue Cross shells were used to disguise the distinctive bursting sound of Yellow Cross mustard gas shells.

During August and September 1917, the Germans used mustard to defeat French attacks on either side of the river Meuse, causing 13,158 to be poisoned and 143 killed.  Losses were so great in the affected areas that it has been claimed that the French were forced to abandon the attack.[10]  The combination of Green and Blue Cross shells, used for the first time to support the attack at Nieuwpoort on 10 July, was later used for the successful German assault across the Daugava river on 1 September 1917 which lead to the fall of Riga.  The artillery fire plan was the work of Colonel Georg Bruchmüller and the publicity accorded it has led some to assume incorrectly that Bruchmüller invented this combination of gas shells, called Buntschiessen or ‘colour shoots’.

Mustard gas caused serious casualties to the British in July 1917 but there seems to be no evidence to support the claim by Beumelburg and Hanslian that it caused the start of the 3rd Battle of Ypres to be postponed for a fortnight.[11]  Hanslian and Seesselberg claimed also that it prevented a British break-though during the offensive.  Whilst mustard continued to be used throughout the battle, it was not used to cover the withdrawal of German forces as it would be in 1918, as they could not contaminate ground which they would wish immediately to recapture.  Although the Germans improved slightly the effectiveness of their Blue Cross shells, the Allies regarded them as a wasted effort, something that post-war German writers could not accept.

Conclusion: Yellow Cross in 1918

The year 1918 was to see the development of German gas tactics, in particular the use of the persistent mustard gas to block the flanks of areas attacked. The Germans used gas shells in unprecedented numbers and they were integral to their spring and summer offensives.  Against infantry, the Green Cross diphosgene and Blue Cross combination was 50% of the total shells used.  Against artillery the ratio was as high as 80% mustard to high explosive.  Areas outside the attack zone were heavily shelled with mustard to prevent counter attacks.  Mustard was extremely effective as a counter-battery weapon and British decontamination measures broke down.  At one point in 1918 the British had the equivalent to two divisions in hospital suffering from mustard gas injuries.  However, gas was less effective during the June – July offensives: attacking in gas masks behind a gas barrage was especially fatiguing for the Germans while Allied casualties were decreasing.

For the remainder of the year, the Germans were in retreat and mustard was to prove far more suited to defence than attack.  On 31 July 1918 they used 340,000 mustard gas shells to forestall a Franco-American attack west of Verdun.  During September – October British mustard gas casualties were 3 – 4,000 per week but as the British advanced continued, German bombardments became less effective and poorly targeted.  It was impossible for the Germans to create their complex fire plans as supply and command became disorganised.  When the Allied advances began, the Germans discovered that French troops were less hindered by mustard having learnt to minimise casualties when passing through affected areas.  Supplies of mustard were less plentiful by September and during October gas ceased to be a factor in halting the Allied advance.

The cases of both Blue Cross and Yellow Cross shells demonstrate that chemical weapons rarely behave on the battlefield in ways predictable in the laboratory or on the firing range.  Nevertheless, the German use of mustard was rightly regarded as a military success.  Despite apparently intending its effect to be as a lethal lung irritant rather than a non-lethal casualty producer, mustard revolutionised chemical warfare, and introduced an agent which alone amongst the chemical weapons of the First World War has continued application into the 21st century.  Until the introduction of mustard, the artillery arm, by far the most flexible means of using gas, had been handicapped by the lack of an agent effective enough in the smaller quantities delivered by shell.  By its persistent nature mustard provided this.  The German unity of research, production and military expertise, embodied in the person of Fritz Haber, meant that the right substance was available to meet the military demand.

The introduction of mustard gas however was a gamble for Germany.  A physicist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Wilhelm Westphal, claimed that when Haber described mustard gas to General Ludendorff, he warned against its use unless the war was certain to be won within the year.  Otherwise the Allies would produce mustard for themselves and Germany lacked the Allies’ ability to replace contaminated uniforms.  This alone he said could lose the war for Germany.  It did take the Allies a year to produce their own mustard gas, achieved by the French through accepting casualties in their factories comparable to those at the front.  Westphal’s anecdote may be apocryphal but when the Germans identified French-produced mustard in August 1918, this awareness that the Allies would probably soon be using it on a large scale was one more reason why the Germans would be unable to continue fighting in 1919.


sawyer-spence

Understanding Chemical Warfare in the First World War


Notes on Yellow Cross: the advent of Mustard Gas

[1] This article is an extract from a paper delivered at the In Flanders Fields Museum in 2007 and is partially referenced. Contact me if you require more information on sources.

[2] W. Volkart, Die Gasschlacht in Flandern im Herbst 1917, (E S Mittler & Sohn, Berlin, 1957) p.46.  The British Official History, J. E. Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium 1917 Vol. II, (HMSO. London, 1948), p. 119, mistakenly states that the Germans used mustard gas in the bombardment prior to this assault.

[3] Curt Wachtel, Chemical Warfare, (Chemical Publishing Co., Brooklyn, 1941), pp. 226-7.

[4] L. F. Haber, The Poisonous Cloud, (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986), p. 117.

[5] Wachtel, op. cit., pp. 221-2.

[6] Volkart, op. cit., citing Rudolf Hanslian, Der Chemische Krieg, (E S Mittler & Sohn, Berlin, 1937).

[7] Hanslian, op. cit., pp. 132-141.

[8] Volkart, op. cit., p.40.

[9] W. G. MacPherson (ed.), History of the Great War Medical Services Diseases of the War, Vol. II, (HMSO, London, 1923), pp. 292-293.

[10] Hanslian, op. cit., pp. 132-141.

[11] Hanslian op. cit., p. 140.


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