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1st Australian Tunnelling Company excavating underground in 1917.


The Tunnellers of the Great War

April 24, 2020

In World War 1, the war on the Western Front of Europe was extensively fought underground. A massive network of tunnels was constructed by both sides. They were not only used to provide protection away from surface conflict; deep mines were constructed beneath enemy lines, the shafts filled with explosives and detonated, causing mass fatalities and destruction.

World War 1 members of the Royal Engineers Tunnelling company.

In 1916 the Australian Army secretly formed the Australian Tunnelling Company. 1200 men were initially recruited. They came from coal fields and mining regions across Australia. Their expertise was used decisively in the tunnel war. Their work was classified ‘top secret’ and little was known of their heroic contribution until long after the end of the War.

Describing their work, mining engineer David Lees wrote:

Typically the tunnels were dug by hand in clay using a technique called ‘clay kicking’. The tunnellers lay on a plank at 45 degrees, angled away from the working face, and inserted the digging tool, which had a cuplike rounded end, between their legs with their feet.

Turning the tool manually, a section of soil was silently removed, which was then shovelled into sandbags and passed out of the tunnel through a chain of men.

Any sound could alert the enemy and consequently they would retaliate by raiding and capturing the mine or quietly countermine close by, exploding a charge that would collapse the tunnel killing all those trapped inside. The work was tiring and tense because the tunnellers rarely knew whether the other side were aware of their presence until it was too late.

Any available excavating machinery proved difficult to transport and assemble under bombardment, and was unable to operate effectively in the gluey clay conditions and would have been much too noisy.

The Australian Tunnelers are famous for their achievement particularly at the Battle of Messines Ridge in 1917. They were tasked with the preparation of tunnels and explosives beneath Hill 60 over seven months, working with the constant danger of collapse and of detection by the enemy.

The Australian film Beneath Hill 60 tells the story of the battle.

The Australian War memorial has further reading and resources about the tunnellers.

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