The lamps are going out

11 July 2016

In light of the recent vote by the British people demanding a split from the European Union, it is hard not to think about the history of the continent. Times are peaceful now, although it does not always seem that way, and looking back even a century reveals an unrecognisable political mess. This month marks an important historical landmark as far as peace in Europe goes; it is exactly 100 years since the start of the Battle of the Somme.

For those who are not familiar, the Somme was a five-month engagement on the Western Front during World War One. Certainly for the British this battle has become a symbol of the conflict: an utterly unwinnable stalemate fought in the mud between two lines of trenches. Some 1.3 million people lost their lives to shellfire and to ruinous charges against machine gun emplacements.

It was a time in history when military technology had shifted to favour defensive tactics. The grand cavalry charges of the previous centuries had finally been abandoned just two years before, suicidal in the modern arena. Even artillery fire had limited effectiveness at breaking enemy lines. Although doubtless very effective at breaking body and mind. Commanders had been desperately trying to find ways to break the deadlock. And one of the solutions was tunnelling.

At 7:28 a.m. on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme, eight large and 11 small carefully prepared caches of explosives were set off underneath the German lines. The resulting devastation, the ‘Lochnager mine’, is one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time. An enormous crater formed and was promptly seized by the attacking forces.

Tunnelling did not end the war, and was far from an easy tactic for the workers involved. The conditions underground were horrific and cramped, and there was the ever-present danger of counter-mining operations collapsing the tunnel. It is an under-reported and scarcely remembered theatre of the war, although there is a memorial held every year on the 1 July held at the Lochnager mine site and schools still visit the crater.

To remedy that, and to commemorate the sacrifices of the underground soldiers of history, in this issue of the magazine we have the first of a two-part historical feature on military tunnelling, looking at the efforts of soldiers to excavate and support the tunnels using techniques such as ‘clay kicking’. Written and researched by Myles O’Reilly, former chairman of the Tunnels and Tunnelling Editorial Advisory Board, it is well worth a read. We are also grateful to the Imperial War Museum and Simon Jones, author of Underground Warfare 1914-1918 for their assistance