All Quiet Below the Western Front

soldiers working in a mine
Figure 1: A painting by painter and former Royal Engineer David Bomberg commemorating the struggle of Canadian Tunnellers below St. Eloi.

In the early hours of July 7th, during a relatively quiet period for the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915, gunner Richard Walter Rayner moved to reoccupy his section of trench along the Ploegsteert sector of the Western Front. Temporarily assigned to aid a Signal company, Rayner worked to establish and maintain lines of communication with the rear. Beneath him, German sappers quickly piled explosives into a narrow tunnel hoping to undermine Rayner’s trench while British sappers dug feverishly to find and stop them. Rayner knew about his precarious position but could do little about it. While the mass of explosives packed beneath him steadily increased, he came to terms with his lot, pulled out his diary, and penned the following words:

“July 7, 1916: Had one shell drop about 10 feet from our dug out.  Nobody hurt. The rest of the men went out tonight.  They say it is expected that this trench will be blown up tonight.  Quite interesting eh what, sitting on a mine waiting for it to go up.”

mine explosion on a field
Figure 2 The destruction of the mine beneath Hawthorne Ridge, initiating the Battle of the Somme. Similarly massive detonations were the opening salvos of some of the largest battles of the Great War.

Following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, the Western Front came to resemble a vast medieval siege, albeit with underground fortresses of mud rather than the stone and wood castles and forts of the past. It quickly became apparent, as shells, bullets, bayonets, and gas failed to pierce the lines, that the long-abandoned tactics of undermining would be necessary to orchestrate a breakthrough. In 1915, both sides began recruiting engineers, tunnellers, and sappers en masse. By 1916, Britain had organised 33 sapper companies including three from Australia, known as the earwiggers; three from Canada, called the beavers; and one from New Zealand. These companies would be used to burrow under No-Man’s-Land, and were also used in the construction of dugouts, subways, and other subterranean infrastructure. In all, 30,000 men were organised to dig under the Western Front.

The main goal of tunnelling companies was to dig underneath enemy positions, causing them to collapse, while preventing similar enemy efforts. The tunnels dug underneath the enemy lines were a little over four feet high and two feet wide. While the average soldier was short by today’s standards, around a height of 5’3, these tunnels still would have felt cramped. Many tunnels extended for hundreds of meters, leaving air foetid and musty for the miners. The only source of light came from candles that glowed a dull red from the bad air. Unpredictable water tables meant constant water pumping was required and only the sputtering of candles or the archaic silencing of canaries served to detect poisoned air and dangerous gasses. Miners could expect to extend their tunnels by 8 feet every 6-hour shift. Beyond these threats came the threat of collapse from shelling or countermining. On occasion, two opposed tunnels would connect, and fighting would ensue in the dark, cloying, cramped caves. Reinforcements were put in place to counter shelling but the only effective defense against counter-miners was silence. Rags were put against walls to dampen sound and men only spoke in whispers. Above, rats would be unleashed towards the German lines with bells around their necks, the idea being that the noise they made as they scurried about would confuse sentries. A collapsed mine, by battery or countermining, was often fatal to the individuals caught underground. Despite the conditions and risks, sappers received no extra pay for their labour, only an extra shot of rum.

Illustration of clay-kicking method
Figure 3: The British method of tunnelling, called Clay-Kicking, had been perfected during the creation of the London sewer system. It was favoured because of its relative silence, its effectiveness against clay (hence the name), and conservation of space. It involved laying at a 45 degree angle while working a specialised “grafting tool” spade with your legs, pushing the sharpened tool into the clay and then levering out a “spit” of it.

Successful mining operations could result in explosive displays, the resulting heavily cratered landscape literally setting the stage for battle. These explosions could also cause thousands of casualties in an instant. Notable examples of this occurred at St. Eloi and the Somme in 1916 where the explosions were so massive that they could be heard from England.[1] Unfortunately, failures of logistics and coordination often meant that these dramatic eruptions, representing months if not years of long, hard, cramped, and dangerous work, resulted in little tactical advantage. By 1917, these issues were largely ironed out meaning that the tunnels dug by the First and Third Canadian tunneling company, as well as other British and Australian companies, were used to their full advantage during the battle of Messines, near St. Eloi. The resulting victory was one of the most successful examples of undermining of the war. Undermining also served a psychological purpose. Rayner’s phlegmatic response to the news of impending doom was not shared by many soldiers. Often, the news, or even rumour, of nearby tunnellers played on nerves, caused anxiety, and reduced fighting capabilities. Death from above, so the thinking went, could be mitigated by digging in, but there was no escape from death from below. As undermining reached its apex in 1918, it also became increasingly obsolescent. The success of the sappers, combined with improved tactics, logistics, and coordination, rendered trenches more and more difficult to hold, the static warfare that had so long defined the Western Front gave way to a degree of mobility in 1918.

three medals
Figure 4: These medals were awarded to Captain Oscar Roberts Harvey, of the Royal Engineers of Canada. Captain Harvey was digging dugouts with the Second Canadian Tunneling company to house soldiers in preparation for the 1918 attack on Messines. The 26 mine explosions that ushered in the massive entente effort were some of the largest man-made explosions before the invention of nuclear weapons. The dugouts Captain Harvey constructed had to be strong enough to resist such strains and still be relatively comfortable to live in.

Back at the nascence of undermining, Rayner—calmly sitting atop an explosive burrow—would eventually be relocated. This particular example of German undermining would prove ineffective. However, the importance of tunnellers to the Western Front’s war effort is difficult to overstate. Tunnellers were present along the entirety of the front and were involved with some of the largest battles of the conflict. Rayner would go on to encounter mines throughout his stay at the Western Front, both friendly and hostile, and they were a regular concern for sentries and officers more broadly. The impact of tunneling operations can still be felt today as dozens of mines packed with explosives remain deep under the idyllic farms of France and Belgium. Two such mines remain under the Vimy memorial itself, and though they are considered neutralized, they remain an ever-present reminder of this often-overlooked practice of trench warfare.

[1] See our online exhibit, “This Place is a Sure Hell”  for more on the Battle of the St. Eloi craters:

The following are my sources for this post. For more information on tunnellers, tunnelling, and the subterranean world of the Western Front, consider checking:

Kerry, Colonel A. J., and Major W.A. McDill. The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers. Vol. 1. Toronto: Thorn Press, 1962.

Leonard, Matthew. Beneath the Killing Fields: Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front. Havertown, United States: Pen & Sword Books, 2017.

Murray, Nicholas. “Mine Warfare.” International Encyclopedia of the First World War, April 4, 1916.

Nicholson, Colonel G.W.L. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1962.

Pascas, Brian. “Clay-Kickers of Flanders Fields: Canadian Tunnellers at Messines Ridge 1916-1917” 27 (2018): 32.

Shea, Neil. “This Explosion Was the Biggest Blast Before Atomic Bombs.” National Geographic News, June 6, 2017. Tunnellers Memorial. “Tunnelling

Companies in the Great War,” 2016.

Photos Cited

Figure 1: Bombeg, David. “Sappers at Work: Canadian Tunnelling Company, R14, St. Eloi”, Great Britain, © IWM Art.IWM ART 2708.

Figure 2: Brooks, Earnest (Lieutenant) “The Battle of the Somme, July-November 1916” Hawthorne Redoubt, France, 1916-07-01, © IWM Q 754.

Figure 3: Andy Gammon, “Illustration of clay-kicking method” published 2011 by The Tunnellers’ Memorial, Givenchy.

Figure 4: [Service Medals, Captain Oscar Roberts Harvey] [1914-1919] Collections CCGW.

By: Cain Doerper

Share this article

Let us know what you think

A photo of a destroyed dugout near or at Mount Sorrel in the Ypres Salient.

“It was simply Hell!”: The Battle of Mount Sorrel, June 1916

On June 2nd, 1916, the Battle of Mount Sorrel began. Overshadowed by the larger battles of 1916, Mount Sorrel was nevertheless an important action for the still young Canadian Corps.The opening day was the 3rd Division’s “baptism by fire” and the fighting, particularly the Canadian counterattack on June 13th, taught valuable, but costly, lessons.

Read More »