from ‘the War Budget’ June 28th 1917
'Overseas Dominion Tunnelers'

The Underground War


The following article, written by Malcolm Boss, War Correspondent with, the New Zealand Forces, and issued by Sir Thomas Mackenzie, the High Commissioner for New Zealand, is reproduced from the "Chronicles of the N.Z.E.F."

News from France

In March, over a year ago, a New Zealand Tunnelling Company, 340 strong, and well officered, arrived in Northern France. A New Zealand Staff Officer, now G.S.O. 2 of English Corps, was in command, and with him were several capable Engineer Officers. The men were mostly from the gold and coal mines of the Dominionis — strong determined workers, ready to strike a blow against the German tyranny. For more than a year now, unconnected in any way with the Division, they have been lost to our sight — human moles burrowing underground, and burrowing to some purpose, as the Germans now know to their cost.

First Experiences

Within a week of their landing on foreign soil, with their transport, their full equipment, and even their own little Hospital, they were at work on the Sabliere Front, North of Arras, in the famous "Labyrinth." After being there for three weeks they were shifted South and took over a mining area on the front opposite Arras, where they have been mining ever since. Their chief operations extended over about a mile of front. Up till this time it has not been .possible to write anything about their labours, but now that our victorious troops have gained the Vimy Ridge, which the enemy thought impregnable, and have made a great bulge in the German line in front of Arras itself, they may be given their due meed of praise, for which so long they have waited uncomplainingly and modestly. When' I saw them some months ago they had already driven galleries for a length of three and a half miles. By now they must have extended their record to about five miles. Much of this work was done at a depth of from 80 to 90 feet below the surface.

Pushing Back the Enemy Miners

When they took over, the German underground operations were close to the British lines, but by splendid work they were able to push, back the enemy miners till the safety of the British front trenches was assured. Once more the vaunted superiority of the German army in one of the important details of modern war was overcome by men from the Overseas Dominions. This is no empty boast, it is sober fact, and officers from the British armies have told me how well they have done their work. At the start the enemy had the initiative, but after the energetic countermining, skilfully undertaken, they lost it. The German miners had blown very large mines against us, the craters 150 and 160 feet in diameter, but with no advantage to themselves, for our fellows had located! their positions, fairly accurately, and our infantry were prepared to seize the craters, the moment the mines were .blown. We on our part had retaliated with several large mines, with what damage to the enemy we cannot of course say for certain, but we know that we pushed him back. The trenches were only some 200 yards apart. The New Zealand Engineers also blew mines that destroyed the German galleries. All this they did with scarcely a casualty in the actual mining, and only a very few from shell fire above ground, and in face of the fact that the Germans had been mining here for 12 months before there was any real countermining on our part.

In some of the galleries the New Zealanders could hear the Germans working. It is all a most uncanny business, and fraught with danger. At Quinn's Post on Gallipoli one went into narrow little tunnels, bent double, and listened to the industrious Turk tapping like a woodpecker with his pick a, few feet away. In those days we thought that a great thing. And no doubt it was, under all the circumstances. But this mining at Arras greatly transcends in magnitude anything that was accomplished on the Peninsula in Turkey.

Both officers and men were trained in rescue work and were provided with oxygen respirators, as were the Germans. The Unit has been attached from time to time to various British Divisions, but has been entirely self-contained. The first man I met on my first visit to Arras I knew was a lad who used to serve me in a chemist's shop in Wellington, New Zealand. He was attached to the Tunnellers' Hospital, and, physically at all events, he had flourished. The Company had its own canteen, and out of the profits the men were supplied with extra food, chiefly vegetables. By this means and by efficient medical supervision, the health of the men was maintained at a high standard. Anyone who fell ill was given a rest, and soon returned to duty. Throughout, the men worked with great vigour, and kept steadily at it.

The End of the Work

A few days ago, on the eve of the great battle, I made another trip to Arras. The St. Pol - Arras, road was then a wonderful sight. Roads, railways and tramways had been built by the British. Many guns were in position. Others were going up. On a few miles of road: I counted fifty, all rumbling on towards the battle front. And on either side of the road were spacious barbed wire "cages" that were to hold the thousands of prisoners; that Sir Douglas Haig expected to get, and did get.

The troops sheltered in the old caverns in the bowels of the earth — ready, when the time came, to go in long waves behind the withering barrage across the German lines. There were still inhabitants, living in what a few months before had seemed a city of the dead. They lived for the most part underground. But they had little shops, and you could still buy food and raiment there.

The Cave Dwellers

We went past the sixteenth century Hotel de Ville, which was one of the handsomest in the North of France, its. fine Gothic facade now .broken by German shells — one of its bells weighed almost nine tons — to the railway station, of which now only the splendid iron framework is left. Here we prowled in the ruins picking up railway tickets for Douai and Cambrai, still well behind the German lines. Later on we came upon one of the tunnel entrances, and descending by steps down, an incline of one in two found ourselves in a new world where the cave-dwellers were going to and fro like bees in a hive. We passed miners from the Welsh mines, and from Newcastle. "Where," we asked, "will we find the New Zealanders?"

"If you go along this tunnel and turn to the right farther on, you'll find some of them in a cave on the right," we were told. Wires for electric light were fixed along the tunnel walls. On either side were big chambers, and caverns, with the roof high above. In one of these we found some New Zealanders installing a dynamo!


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