from ‘the War Budget’, November 11th, 1915
'The Terrible Game
of Mine & Counter-Mine'
by W. G. Fitz-Gerald

The Underground War

from tow British magazines


Here on the Menin road, East of the classic ruin that was Ypres, lies a German redoubt raining fire and death upon us day and night. It forms the apex of a triangle of hostile trenches—a stronghold bristling with machine guns. There is dead ground in front of it —a tangled jungle of lush grass, barbed wire and shattered barns, each one with its desperate garrison. How shall such a hornet's nest be taken? Direct assault by infantry would be madness.

Here, then, is a job for the Royal Engineers and their attendant sappers. For men who drive deep, mazy galleries winding this way and that to deceive the "listening- posts" of a crafty foe; heaping explosives at the unsuspected head, and firing a mine at last by electric contact from afar. The result is a truly terrifying spectacle. A muffled roar—a sky-high spouting of earth and stones and human fragments, with a. dense pall of smoke over all and the sun-lit landscape altered when the cloud clears away.

Magic and Weird Effects

As at Hill 60, for instance—a "mountain" which the faith of our sappers removed with tons of blasting gelatine. That upheaval left Etna-craters of horror and destruction, swarming pits in which the bitter fight went on to the very end. In that memorable dusk seven enormous mines were fired far down in the bowels of the earth beneath the German trenches. The effect was magical and weird beyond words — "like a transformation-scene," as one awe -truck, soldier said.

Trenches, parapets, sandbag-mounds and human beings high into the air with ear- splitting din and vast displacement of the country-side. Yawning caves appeared, filled with dazed and screaming survivors. Those were seen driving their bayonets into their friends in the blind frenzy of instinctive flight which seizes panic-stricken animals. Into each pit our bombers poured to make the slaughterous dusk more hellish still with hand-grenades and jam-tins filled with scrap-iron and gun-cotton.

The War of the Moles

This is the new war: "La guerre taupiniere," the French call it. A war of moles. Blind burrowing underground; cunning manoeuvres for subterranean positions, then the heaping of murderous nitro-compounds, the fixing of fuses and electric wires in the ghostly dark. And then a vast eruption—that vengeful vomiting and screaming tumult which unnerves victor and vanquished alike.

Now what manner of man is our new mole-warrior who bores deep way to impregnable earthy forts, armoured and wired and gunned with. all-formidable Prussian resources lies a Durham or Cornish miner—a quasi-civilian enlisted at double rates of pay in the Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers. A thick-set giant, perhaps from Redruth or Camborne, well versed in geological peculiarities.

A man of magnificent arms and thighs, rather round-shouldered from crouching in narrow galleries of mines in the rugged Duchy. Familiar all his life with pick and shovel—be sure of that! He has trained ears for the straining pit-prop, or those plaints of earth which precede a dangerous cave-in. A man who can gauge the thickness of seam or traverse by mysterious taps, and tense listening at the clammy wall.

Subterranean Slaughter

They work like fiends, those obedient moles! Their shovels displace earth like a steam dredger—and yet softly, with dreadful noiseless zeal. The hole is sunk, the galleries begun and driven forward with uncanny speed and cunning twists and feints. At long last the sweating gnomes withdraw. The officer fixes and tamps the huge explosive charge, attaching wires and then retiring well pleased, to watch and wait with fateful finger upon an electric key. You'll hear sensitive—and highly scientific-students of war regret the bygone glamour of the fray as story-tellers knew it, and painters like Meissonnier and Detaille. The jingling cavalry, the galloping guns, the continuous change of scene; the daily bivouac, the affair of outposts, escapades and flank marches—Where are they now?

"Gone!" says the mourner. Nothing is left but the-living tomb, the changeless outlook on a changeless foe; the maze of ditches behind, mole-like progress of saps and alleyways in front. The engineer officer spends his life deep down under the fields of fair France, often nearer to the foe than to his own people. At midnight he may come "on-earth" to put out more barbed wire, and at Brigade Headquarters news comes by telephone that sounds of "picking" have been heard in one of our galleries. The enemy intend to "lift" us!

We must watch his progress with eyes that are ears trained miners' ears. One of our rugged experts, straining on watch estimates the sound at eight feet. We shall let him come as close as two or three, and then countermine— a sickening holocaust of men bent upon slaughtering us.

Suddenly, at three in the morning, the counter-mine goes up with dull thud and sequent roar of flaming debris and piteous wisps of humanity. The biter is "bit" with a vengeance! And in the darkness he cannot see how he stands, nor determine upon, reprisals. We occupy the craters caused by our mines, and link them with communicating trenches which have parapets and loopholes for defence.


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