from ‘the Sphere’, June 10th 1916
'Mines and Craters
on the Western Front'

Digging into the Earth

illustrations from 1915 showing a French tunneling operation and the resultant explosion


The general reader of war news has become familiar with a word which, from an occasional reference here and there, has come to be of constant occurrence in the news columns of all our daily papers. Every narrative includes the word, "crater." During the early days of field artillery and moving armies one heard little or nothing of this word of sinister import, but as the epoch of trench warfare developed the attention of readers at home was drawn more and more to this then strange phenomenon. Correspondents at different parts of the front began to describe the scene before them as "a lunar landscape," and, just as in the case of the moon, the face of this dreary land is to-day pitted with craters of varying size. Some formed by shells are but a yard or two in width, others are giant hollows such as a SPHERE artist depicts in the illustration given on the central pages of this issue. The latter arise from the mining activities of human moles, who burrow towards their foes with ceaseless activity. Little is seen and little heard of this activity by those on the spot until the moment of direful consummation, when the enemy's forward positions are blown high into the air.

Recent news from the Western front has included many references to this mining activity on the part of the British and on the part of the Germans opposing our sector. During the past month the following operations have been recorded : —

May 3. — Souchez : Three mines blown up east of the village.

May 4. — Hooge: Mine sprung, which damaged enemy's underground workings. Germans report "lively mine engagements" near Lens, Souchez, and Neuville.

May 8-9. — Neuville St. Vaast and Souchez, Armentieres and Ypres: Mining activity along these fronts.

May 10. — Mining activity along the southern portion of the British front — at Fricourt, Souchez, Hulluch, and Cuinchy.

May 11. — British and German camouftets blown near Beaumont Hamel and Fricourt. Advantage remained with British.

May 14. — Givenchy-en-Goelle: German mines exploded within the British lines, and the crater seized by the enemy but recaptured.

May 16. — Vimy Ridge : Lancashire Fusiliers occupy the enemy's forward line after the explosion of British mines; fighting amongst the craters continued till the 20th.

May 20-21. — Hulluch: Mine blown up and crater occupied. Mining activity at the Hohenzollern Redoubt and north of the La Bassée Canal.

May 25. — Much mining activity in the Loos sector. A large German mine at Fricourt exploded.

May 28. — Five mines exploded along the British front and two German mines blown up.

The region of Artois has seen some remarkable outbursts of burrowing. Mr. H. Warner Allen records one such period early in the year, when the Germans exploded twenty-five mines at one moment.

"The main feature of these attacks was the abundant use made by the enemy of mines, and it is clear that this offensive, which met with singularly little result, had been most minutely prepared by the enemy, and that these preparations had been going on for at least three months. For all this time the Germans were burrowing their advance and made it impossible for the French sentries to detect the approaching danger. In front of each salient from five to seven mines were driven. When, before the attack, they were exploded these mines opened craters from forty to fifty yards in diameter, so that they must each have contained between six and eight tons of explosives. The subterranean galleries leading to the mines were from thirty to fifty yards long. These facts are sufficient proof of the great importance attached by the Germans to these assaults.

"The twenty-five German mines were exploded simultaneously, and the enemy's artillery began a violent bombardment. All the enemy gained was the partial occupation of the four little salients mentioned above. As it was, the mines were not so successful as the enemy hoped. The German infantry advanced to occupy the craters, and was received by heavy fire from the French artillery, machine-guns, and infantry. Round a single crater 150 German corpses were counted, while three battalions belonging to two different regiments (who on the 28th were hurled towards the French trenches across a 'Pont' or narrow strip of ground about 300 yards wide between two craters) lost more than half their effectives. From the point of view of observation the capture of these salients by the Germans is of no importance. The rolling hills of this country render all progress made by mine warfare practically useless."

What does it feel like to enter a mine ? It is an experience which has fallen to the lot of few besides those actually engaged in this work. Mr. G. Valentine Williams, however, in his volume, With Our Army in Flanders (Edward Arnold), gives one a very good impression of his eerie experience: —

"I went down one of our mines one night. I was spending the night in our trenches, and in the course of an after-dinner stroll my host, the captain in command of this particular section, asked me if I would care to see 'our mine.' I found myself in a square, greasy gallery, with clay walls propped up by timber baulks leading straight out in the direction of the German trenches. Guttering candles stuck on the baulks at intervals faintly lit up as strange a scene as I have witnessed in this war.

"Deep in the bowels of the earth a thick, square-set man in khaki trousers and trench boots, a ragged vest displaying a tremendous torso all glistening with sweat, was tipping clay out of a trolley, and gently chaffing in quite unprintable English of the region of Lancashire a hoarse but invisible person somewhere down the shaft. I crawled round the quizzer, slipping on the greasy planks awash with muddy water on the floor of the gallery, and found myself confronted by another of the troglodytes, a man who was so coated with clay that he appeared to be dyed khaki (like the horses of the Scots Greys) from top to toe. I asked him whence he came, so different was he in speech and appearance from the black-haired, low-browed Irishman, watching at the parapet of the trench far above us. 'A coom fra Wigan,' he said, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a grimy hand, and thus saying he turned round and made off swiftly, bent double as he was, down the low gallery.

"I followed, the water swishing ankle-deep round my field boots. The air was dank and foul, the stooping position became almost unbearable after a few paces ; one slipped and slithered at every step. At intervals side galleries ran out from the main sap, unlit, dark, and forbidding — listening posts. After a hundred paces or so a trolley blocked the way. Behind it two men were working, my taciturn acquaintance and another. The latter was hacking at the virgin earth with a pick, the former was shovelling the clay into the trolley. Heavens, how these men worked! Their breath came fast and regular, they spoke not a word; one heard only the hack, hack of the pick and the dull smack of the earth clods as they fell into the trolley. There was no overseer there to harry them, no 'speeder-up' to drive. They were alone in their sap, working as though life depended on it (as maybe it did). Good for Wigan, wasn't it?

"I had not been out of that mine for more than a minute when an electric lamp flashed in my eyes, and an excitable young man, who held an automatic pistol uncomfortably near my person, accosted me thus: 'I beg your pardon, sir,' — it occurred to me that the pistol accorded ill with this polite form of address — ' but may I ask you what you are doing down my mine?' My friend, the captain, rushed forward with an explanation and an introduction, the pistol was put away, and the sapper subaltern — all credit to him for his vigilance — was easily persuaded to come along to the dug-out and have a drop of grog before turning in."


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