WWI – Working the Mines

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.

WWI Letters – A Window on Reality

Letters of Agar AdamsonTwo years ago, when I had the opportunity to visit the memorial dedicated to one of Canada’s most significant battles of WWI, I bought a book titled Letters of Agar Adamson.

At first blush the book looks intimidating, page after page of letters from Agar Adamson to his wife, Mabel, beginning in October 1914 and ending in March 1919. But gradually, Agar became a real person and his circumstances came to life as he filled in the details of training for, and then living with, war.

One aspect I found amazing is that he enlisted at the age of 48 and blind in one eye. Norm Christie who edited the letters  and who has written and produced TV series on WWI, describes Agar as “dying for a change in 1914”, a “bon vivant and lover of excitement”. Agar certainly experienced change and bursts of excitement, if you can call the horrors of trench warfare exciting.

Interesting tidbits mingle easily with descriptions of battle and comments on political bungling. Requests for Mabel to send a new pair of eyeglasses or a pair of pajamas are followed in the very next sentence by news of someone who has been wounded or details about a trench they have taken over.

Living in London, Mabel is the recipient of many requests from her battle weary husband – requests for pens, new glasses, a pair of winter pants, various bits of food, requests to meet with Agar’s soldiers who are on leave or in hospital, requests to admonish one or other of their sons, particularly on the topic of school efforts, requests for the loan of money. Agar always replies with his thanks and often an apology for burdening her once again.

Here are a few examples that illustrate the realities of living with war.

“Thank you for your parcel containing an Easter egg, a cake, a pair of socks and the revolver holster.” 2nd April 1915

“Thank you for my mended glasses. The ham in a tin was most excellent.” 18th April 1915

“Please send me some oysters … and a pair of rubber gloves.” Midnight Xmas Day, 1915

“Thank you for boots, breeches, Blackwoods and “Canada”… 15th May 1916   Since he thanks her for “Canada” on subsequent occasions, this might be a newspaper of some sort.

“Will you send me two strong eye glass black cords, with runners, and if you can find time a good flexible metal cord.” 30th June 1916

“The chicken you sent was very nice. Will you go to Philip Grant, Lower Regent Street Gunsmith and ask him to send me his periscope rifle, the same as he has supplied us before. All ours were destroyed.” 25th July 1916   Do the men have to fight and supply their own weapons?

“Your lemon squash is most excellent, as near a fresh lemon as I have ever met.” 18th August 1916

“Will you please send two pair (heavy) – he’s referring to breeches – that are at the flat, also two sets of my heaviest underwear.” 16th September 1916    September had turned unexpectedly cold.

“Yours of the 10th arrived … also some excellent food. The grouse is always very nice, the large tin of biscuits was very nice.” 15th October 1916    Agar frequently comments on the food Mabel sends.

“You can encourage anybody to send us socks. The Battn is badly in need of them.” 17th November 1916  Imagine not having enough socks for soldiers. In another letter he mentions that the men have insufficient underwear and have to wear the same pair for more than a month.

“Thank you for the fur lining and dates, I am eating one of them now.” 25th November 1917  I suspect he’s eating the dates, not the fur!

“Thank you for the most wonderful ink bottle. I don’t think a shell could spill it.” 7th December 1917  

As the title says, a window on reality.