Newbattle at War a history of the Parish at war   

 Now featuring Scots in the Great War Living History Society.    




The image of men going 'over the top' in the Great War is a very familiar one to most of us.

However beneath the feet of these men, tens of thousands of miner fought and died in a clandestine and often barbaric war.

So how did miners come to be Tunnellers? As early as the winter of 1914 it was clear to the General Staff of both the Allies and Germans that trench warfare was here to stay, frontal assaults had been proved to be costly and largely ineffective, there had to be a different way to breach the stalemate.

The method chosen was not new, military tunnelling and mining had been around for centuries, used as part of siege warfare. The Germans were first of the mark, they set off a mine under Indian troops causing many casualties, and panicked the men into retreat.

In response the British decided to raise Companies of tunnellers and placed their trust in the somewhat eccentric  Tory MP Major John Norton-Griffiths, or Empire Jack as he was christened. Initially the men were recruited from the ranks of Manchester sewer workers, or clay kickers as they were known, in reference to their method of cutting clay tunnels.

What was clear from the off was that there were not enough of these men to meet demands at the front, permission was sought to recruit from Britain's coal mines, initially there was fierce resistance to gathering together large numbers of militant, unionised coal miners in the military.

As a stop gap measure, Infantry units were combed out of miners in the ranks who wished to volunteer for tunnelling duties, as an incentive, and reflecting the hazardous nature of the work, they were offered 6 shillings a day and a mate 2 shillings and 6 pence, much more than an infantryman.

This was successful, but supply did not meet demand, a call went out to Britain's miners to enlist in the Tunnelling Companies, they enlisted in their thousand and by the end of WW1, about 28,000 miners served as tunnellers, many too old, or physically unfit to fight in the trenches.