World War 1 started in August 1914, in glorious summer weather where temperatures and expectations were high. Men rushed to enlist, afraid that they might miss the Great Adventure if they waited, as it was 'All going to be over by Christmas.' But it was not and the war was to drag on for another 4 years with monstrous casualties on all sides.
Lord Kitchener had not been convinced of a quick victory in 1914 and neither had John Norton-Griffiths, an engineer and MP for Wednesbury in the Black Country of the Midlands. He had plagued Lord Kitchener to start mining battalions to undertake aggressive mining but Kitchener was reluctant to have anything to do with what he considered to be a sneaky, underhand sort of warfare. Aggressive mining had been a recognised technique of warfare but this was to be a new kind of war with terrible consequences. The army had neither the manpower nor the expertise required for mining and Norton-Griffiths volunteered his men, currently working on a sewer system in Manchester for the job until official Tunnelling Companies could be formed. Lord Kitchener finally agreed after the German attack at Festubert and Norton-Griffiths 'Clay kickers' were sent to Hill 60 in the Ypres Salient in early 1915.
Government agents were then sent out to mining districts across Britain to enlist miners for the Tunnelling Companies. At a rate of 6 shillings a day, there were many takers as miners had been laid off due to over production and stockpiling of coal at the pithead. With no ships to transport it and markets closed to export many of the miners were struggling to support their families. This seemed an ideal opportunity to travel at someone else's expense, see the world and still send money home. Experience was more important than age or physical stature, which had excluded many men from the industrial centres of Britain from the Army until the BANTAM battalions were formed, so the miners became army 'Moles'. Many of their industrial colleaugues joined PALS battalions where whole communities enlisted and all too often, died together.
Mining on the Western Front was difficult, ground conditions varying from running sand and clay to porous rock, through which any surface liquid seeped and where gas was a constant problem. Living conditions in the trenches were appalling, wading kneedeep in freezing, filthy slime in the winter, plagued by heat and flies in the summer, with the dead and the rats ever present.
The war underground was waged against the Germans by the British, the Australians, the New Zealanders, the South Africans, the Canadians, the French and the Belgians.
Visit our 'Did You Know..?' page for more insider secrets about the war underground.
Visit our ORDER page to claim your copy of Miners at War.