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Researching WWI has occupied many, many hours in the past five years. At times I wanted to weep, at other times rage overwhelmed me. At all times I felt the oozing weariness of lives lived in that dreadful war.

Miners were essential to WWI. If you’ve ever read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, you will know the intimate details of how sappers (most had trained to be miners) lived and worked. Brutal.

Sapper – a military specialist in field fortification work

Sap – the extension of a trench to a point between an enemy’s fortifications

Here’s a fact BBC News reported about sappers:

One of the most notable episodes [of sapping] was at the Battle of Messines in 1917 where 455 tons of explosive placed in 21 tunnels that had taken more than a year to prepare created a huge explosion that killed an estimated 10,000 Germans.

Ypres and the Battles of Ypres is a Project Guterberg ebook. The book describes the opening event of the Battle of Messines.

On June 7, about an hour before dawn, at 3.10 a.m., the sky was lit up by an intense light, while a series of terrific explosions were heard; nineteen mines, some of whose galleries had taken more than a year to bore, exploded along the enemy positions.

The website firstworldwar.com describes the explosion: “Audible in Dublin and by Lloyd George in his Downing Street study, the combined sound of the simultaneous mine explosions comprised the loudest man-made explosion until that point.  The lighting up of the sky as the detonations ran across the ridge was likened to a ‘pillar of fire’.

Battle of Messines RidgeTake more than a moment to reflect. Audible in Dublin … pillar of fire. If you had been a soldier waiting to attack, how would you have felt? Would you have been able to keep your footing? Might you have thought that hell could be no worse? Those explosions led to rapid advances for British forces taking the ridge.

Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons

The one ever-present concern for those working underground was being blown up by enemy sappers doing exactly the same work. These men heard one another tap, tap tapping away and even heard the sound of enemy voices.

In letters to his wife Mabel, Agar Adamson includes a document titled ACTION TO BE TAKEN IF MINING NOISES ARE HEARD attributed to 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade and dated 2nd January 1916. Armies are notorious for having detailed instructions and regulations concerning even the smallest aspect of military life. One section of that document caught my eye – Noises alleged to be German Mining on this Corps Front have been actually tracked to:

  • revetting
  • sentries stamping their feet
  • rats working on a parapet
  • a loose beam or branch tapping when blowing by the wind
  • running water
  • beat of a man’s own heart
  • a half dead fly buzzing at the bottom of a hole. N.B. this was mistaken for a machine drill
  • actual mining, sometimes our own

Sapping was a nerve-wracking business.