If you watched the tv series Peaky Blinders you’ll know that their story began in World War as miners below the German trenches and although their story is fictional, the truth is not. thanks to John Norton-Griffiths. And it didn’t begin with Brummies.
We all know about the horrors of the stalemate that stretched for 400 miles from the French coast to the Swiss border, but less well-known is the war that took place below the trenches.
With several nations’ armies facing each other across no man’s land, the Germans quickly figured out that going over the top against barbed wire and artillery fire was a tricky proposition, so in November 1914 they began to tunnel underneath allied positions to lay explosive mines.
The British decided to respond in kind and the Royal Engineers were ordered to dig similar tunnels, but they found the job heavy going. The sandy wet clay of France and Flanders was difficult to work and was apt to flood and the RE didn’t manage to explode a single mine until February 1915.
The solution came from Major John Norton-Griffiths, a civil engineer who had worked on peace-time digging projects, including the London Underground and several large sewer refurbishments.
One of the latter was a major project in Manchester which Norton-Griffiths was working on at the outbreak of war. The soil in Manchester was thick clay, not dissimilar to the conditions in France, and he knew he had a workforce with the expertise to succeed where the Royal Engineers had failed.
The Manchester tunnellers were nicknamed the Moles and used a technique called clay-kicking to excavate the heavy terrain. The digger would lie at a 45-degree angle on a wooden frame with his feet facing the digging surface and use a tool that was a cross between a pogo stick and a shovel. He would push on the crossbar with his feet and pass the soil over his head to a ‘bagger’ for removal.
The process that Norton-Griffiths brought to war was quick, but more importantly, it was quiet. The Germans, by contrast, used pickaxes which were ill-suited to the job and made a lot of noise, an important factor in what became a dirty war, both literally and figuratively.
Norton-Griffiths tried several times to convince his commanders to bring his Moles to the frontline, but it wasn’t until his idea came to the attention of Lord Kitchener that he was given the go-ahead to raise a battalion of Manchester Moles.
Norton-Griffiths closed down one of his tunnel contracts in Manchester and eighteen unemployed workers were enlisted in the Royal Engineers. It was not an unattractive proposition for them as they were paid three times the rate of infantry sappers and they were outside the normal military structure and discipline. Norton-Griffiths also swelled their numbers by recruiting copper, slate and coal miners from all over England.
The Moles were an immediate success, digging 26 feet of tunnel a day compared to six and a half feet managed by the Germans. The tunnels were also deeper and more stable than the opposition and they were much harder to catch because of the quietness of the technique.
The network of tunnels grew as the war progressed and it is estimated that there were 150,000 men working underground at the peak of the tunnelling programme, some professional miners to do the digging, some infantrymen doing the hauling. And there was a deadly game of cat and mouse between the allied and Germans troglodytes.
Each side needed to intercept the enemy tunnellers before their mines could be laid and listening became a highly-developed and efficient art. Trained listeners would use the geophone (left) to take compass bearings of suspected enemy tunnelling and then compare notes to triangulate their position and progress.
But by the end of 1916, the scale of mine warfare had expanded to such an extent that there were not enough listeners to man every post, and central listening stations were devised. They used up to 36 remote sensors (telegeophones and seismomicrophones) that could be monitored by just two men.
The object was to undermine the enemy miners or to lie in wait to break through the earth to ambush them and the bodies of many of those killed remain where they fell – deep beneath the fields of France.
But while Norton-Griffiths’ Moles were a success, their work was a military secret and unrecognised for many years, but a special memorial was unveiled in Givenchy in 2010. You can read much more about them at the Tunnellers Memorial site and below is a song written and recorded by ex-sapper Roderic ‘Del’ De Lorme in honour of William Hackett VC and the Tunnelling Companies of the First World War.