On work detail, helping the miners dig their tunnels
Well, we are running these lads into proper soldiers pretty sharpish. It is none stop. Some of them don’t know what has hit them. Most of them have applied themselves and improved greatly but, of course there will always be some shirkers. So, as part of my new responsibilities, I am assisting Sergeant Mackay with his work detail. It is not quite a punishment detail, but these sixty of so lads are really the poorest of the soldiers who have arrived over the last fortnight. And so, every day I take them to the front lines trench – not to fight, but to labour for the miners.
What a rag-tag bunch these miners are. They are supposed to be Royal Engineers, but they are barely soldiers at all. They shuffle nonchalantly along the trenches, taking no notice of any of the other troops, not even their officers. The regulars treat them in the same way, as if both were in completely different worlds. They look a disgrace to their uniforms, making no attempt to keep clean and tidy. They have rifles, but I am told they don’t even know how to fire them. They are here to dig and that is what they do.
The entrance to the mine is built into the wall of the trench – a doorway about 4 feet high and2 feet wide. Behind it a stair case takes you down about 30 feet which opens up into a room about 8 feet square,in the middle of which there is a four feet square shaft with a wooden windlass and rope. The shaft goes down about 20 feet and at the bottom there is a doorway facing the German lines. These lads a are proper miners, brought from the coal fields in Yorkshire, Lancashire or Northumberland. But instead of shovel and pick, their main tool is a bayonet. Down there, they want to be as quiet as possible. Fortunately, the ground here is mainly clay, and they say cutting the mine is like cutting cheese. The tunnel is only that same four feet wide, with wooden supports and panels, so the work must be done on their backs, usually in 3 or 4 inches of cold water. They cut the clay and load it into sand bags which are passed along the tunnel, then lifted up th shaft. Then a chain of our lads pass the bags along up the stairs and carry it along the trench until the bags can be used in the bulwarks somewhere. It is really important to get the earth away from the entrance, because the German planes fly quite low and photograph the lines regularly. There can’t be anything that will draw attention to the mine.
Two or three times a day we all stop work and scuttle out of the tunnel, leaving a man down there with a stethoscope. His job is to listen to the walls, to see if he could hear any activity from the Huns. It is not as you might imagine. They want to hear them digging. It is the silence they fear, for that means they are about to blow their tunnel. One day I was one of the first to return down there and the chap with the stethoscope let me have a try. It was amazing. I could actually hear some Germans talking!
Knowing that the Huns are so close and could burst in upon that at any moment, these miners work away, drenched and with only the light of a few candles to see by. It is hot and fetid as there is only an old blacksmith’s bellows to circulate the air. Some of our lads – the very worst – are put onto the pumps, which need to work constantly to remove the water. with the weather so wet at the moment, their efforts make little difference. Yet these men, armed with only bayonets, work in near darkness and dig their way to within a few feet of the enemy before they pack the tunnel with explosives and blow the trench to kingdom come.