N is for John Norton-Griffiths

I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for Round 25 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if there are repeats of previous posts.

John Norton-GriffithsIf 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.

Clay KickingThe 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.

Geophone being used by French tunnellersEach 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.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

10 comments… Add yours
  • Roger O Green 9th October 2019

    • Ian Rhodes 15th October 2019

      I have indeed seem the film, in fact I went to one of the premieres last year when it was shown at various independent cinemas in the UK. I will leave a comment on your post.

  • Trevor Rowley 11th October 2019

    I watched a film on TV several months ago about a mining division of the British Army during WWI – sorry, but can’t recall the title. The film vividly captured the constant slog that these chaps had to endure and the danger that they regularly faced – not to mention the claustrophobia. My late grandfather served with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers on the Western Front and saw action on the Somme. However, after a couple of years he pitched up in the Labour Corps. As a coal miner he would have been ideally suited for work underground but I have no evidence of what his work with the Labour Corps entailed and his service record is not available as it was destroyed during the Second World War thanks to our old adversaries in the Luftwaffe. That film was very opressive, mind. Most of us would have run off, screaming for the hills, after a shift underground.

    • Ian Rhodes 15th October 2019

      I saw the same programme on tv and it very much captured the sheer horror of what it must have been like. Definitely not something I would contemplate doing.

      • Trevor Rowley 15th October 2019

        After some ferretting about on the internet, I think the film was probably the two-part TV drama “Birdsong” (2012) starring Eddie Redmayne and from the 1993 novel by Sebastian Faulks. A fascinating film, lots of period detail, quite heavy of mood and rather oppressive – but watchable, nonetheless.

        • Ian Rhodes 16th October 2019

          I was thinking of a different programme. It was a documentary I watched last year about the tunnellers and the enormous mines they laid underneath the German lines. Not sure if this is the one but interesting nonetheless.

          • Trevor Rowley 16th October 2019

            Pardon my intrusion into your privacy, Mr P and certainly nothing to do with this topic whatsoever, but (a) how’s your househunting doing and (b) how’s your dad?

            • Ian Rhodes 16th October 2019

              Not a problem Trevor. Our house move is due to complete on Halloween when we are due to move into an old weaver’s cottage in Hollingworth. It has been a long and protracted process that I will probably write about once we are settled in!

              Sadly, my dad died in August after a short illness, something else I will muse upon at a later date.

              • Trevor Rowley 16th October 2019

                Hope your house move goes well, Mr P. I know very little about Hollingworth, other than that they have a couple of really nice pubs. A lad from my class at HCGS came from Hollingworth and, on leaving school, went off to the Falkland Islands to work for a government department – I think it might have been the Ministry of Agriculture. On his return, a couple of years later, he told some lurid stories which aren’t really suitable for a family show like this one.

                Sorry to hear about your dad.

                • Trevor Rowley 12th November 2019

                  Given that we’re now past Halloween, Mr P (although we didn’t exit as in “Brexit”) I wonder if your move went as planned and not thwarted by late night sittings, voting fluctuations and deals within deals. As for the “old weaver’s cottage,” I just wonder if you were finally able to get the old weaver to see sense and move out (ideally to the old folks’ home down the lane).

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