Mines Rescue and The Great War

Early in 1915, in response to the activities of the German forces in mining under the allied positions at the Western Front, companies of the Royal Engineers and the allied forces reluctantly began countermining on a small scale. Specialised Tunnelling Companies were formed for the task and many miners were recruited for the underground work. Such large scale tunnelling and detonation of underground explosive mines brought increasing risks to the miners from the deadly gases given off as a result of the explosion. In many cases, the resultant gases were as deadly to the tunnellers as the explosions were for the enemy. In one six week period, one tunnelling company had 16 killed, 48 sent to hospital and 86 minor cases treated at the shafthead and returned to company billets. Another company had, in one month, 12 killed by gas, 28 sent to hospital and 60 minor cases retained with the unit. Many, if not all, of these casualties were skilled miners and the army could not replace such skills easily or quickly. The companies affected put out an urgent call for appropriate rescue apparatus.

Early in May 1915, Mr Arthur B. Clifford enlisted and was sent out to France to begin the training of officers and men in the use of mine rescue apparatus and, being appointed as Lance Corporal, was solely responsible for this work until October of the same year. During this time his work was carried out under enormous difficulties in that he was asked to train 3000 mine rescuers in a month with only 36 sets of PROTO being available in the country at the time.

In the September of 1915 Captain D Dale Logan (later Lt-Col, D. Dale Logan, DSO, MD, RAMC) was appointed as advisor to GHQ on all matters connected with the health of the specially enlisted Tunnelling Companies, many of whom were formed using civilian coal miners hastily enlisted. His task was to organise a system of rescue work and of protection against gas in mining.

Arthur Clifford had begun training in the yard of the Royal Engineers park at Strazeele; a sub station was started at Berguette, which ultimately developed into the First Army Mine-Rescue School. In the July, under Logan's organisation, the school for the Second Army area was moved to Armentieres.

Up to this time Arthur Clifford had the sole responsibility of training men in the use of rescue apparatus, his intimate knowledge of the equipment and his devotion to the work of training was recognised by the award of the Meritorious Service Medal in 1917.

The Rescue Schools were established with the following objectives:-

    • To train Tunnelling Company personnel in mine rescue work; to repair, test, issue and maintain a reserve stock of mine rescue apparatus;

    • To train Tunnelling Company personnel in the use of mine listening instruments, to repair, test, issue and standardise the same;

    • To train all officers in Tunnelling Companies in advanced mining tactics, trench surveying and allied subjects;

    • To train officers and other ranks of units other than tunnelling companies in the construction of mined dug-outs; to instruct in the detection and removal of enemy traps;

    • To train teams of men in the use of boring machines;

    • To test and report on explosives, new instruments and engineering appliances, and carry out instructional demonstrations in the use of the same; and

    • To form a centre for the exhibition of Military Engineering works for the benefit of representatives from Allied Armies.

Such was the secrecy of these tunnelling operations that, even to this day, the majority of observers of WWI are not aware of the extent of the mining operations that occurred. Officially TOP SECRET until as recently as 1961 much research into the operations is ongoing.

The mining activities culminated in June 1917 with the 'Big Bang' caused by the simultaneous detonation of 19 mines.

The paper entitled "THE TRAINING OF OFFICERS AND MEN OF THE TUNNELLING COMPANIES OF THE ROYAL ENGINEERS IN MINE-RESCUE WORK ON ACTIVE SERVICE IN FRANCE", by G.F.F. Eagar, first presented to the Institution of Mining Engineers on September 10th, 1919, and the book "The Work of the Royal Engineers in the European War 1914 -1919, - MILITARY MINING", are acknowledged as the source of much of the above information.

("Military Mining" details courtesy of the Royal Engineers Library, Brompton Barracks, Chatham, Kent)

A group of soldiers at an unkown location (possibly France 1915??). Lance Corporal A B Clifford is on the back row, standing left. Four of the group are wearing early model 'Proto' breathing apparatus.

A rescue party exiting a dugout at the Western Front in 1917

Source: Histrocial Diving Society; Siebe Gorman Archive

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The memorial, at Givenchy, to William Hackett VC and the Tunnelling Companies of the First World War.

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