Many of the men who rushed to enlist at the start of World War 1 were immigrants from Europe and fervently patriotic. They had come to Australia looking for a new life, better living and working conditions but the climate and economic pressures often ensured that they never found what they were looking for. Life was harsh for many, particularly in the mining areas, in the coalfields of New South Wales, the copper fields of Queensland and the Gold country of Western Australia. Like their British counterparts, enlisting seemed a good idea at the time.
The AIF (Australian Imperial Forces) was started in 1911 with a class of 41 students at Mount Pleasant (later Canberra) by Sir William Throsby Bridges. These young officers became the backbone of the AIF when recruiting for the war began in earnest after the fall of Rabaul in 1914. The AIF left Albany, W.A. on November 1, 1914 to train in Egypt before being sent to Gallipoli in April 1915.
The Mining Battalions were formed in 1916 at the suggestion of Professor TW Edgeworth David, an eminent academic who had accompanied Mawson on his expedition to the South Pole. Like John Norton-Griffiths in Britain, Edgeworth David was convinced of the need for aggressive mining on the Western Front and he eventually got his way. Men were recruited form the mining districts of Australia and given 3 months training before being sent to Europe. The men, who took with them a brass band and a belgian boarhound mascot, referred to themselves as the '6 bob-a-day tourists.'
The 3 Australian Mining Battalions were employed at numerous digs across the Western Front and took part in the tunnelling operations at Messines, a ridge overlooking the YpresSalient, which had been occupied by the Germans for most of the war. The noise of the explosion at Messines was said to have been heard in London and Dublin.
Following the Battle of Messines, mining was mainly confined to digging tunnels for troops to reach the front. Australian miners were captured at Nieuwport in Belgium after digging tunnels for the infantry to reach the frontline as the whole town was under continuous heavy shellfire.
The New Zealand mining battalion concentrated their efforts in the chalk around Arras, where they carved out huge caverns for troops to shelter in and underground roads to access the Front for men and machines.
The mining battalions were also responsible for many of the underground barracks and hospitals for the troops, some of which are still being excavated.
Many miners died on the Western Front and are buried in Commonwealth cemeteries. Their friends whose bodies were never recovered are remembered on Memorials to the Missing.
In 2001 the United Mineworkers Federation of Australia took their Pipe Band on a Tour of the Western Front, which you can follow too.
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