1st Aust Tunnelling Co

Edgeworth David, Professor of Geology at Sydney University and Ernest Skeats, Professor of Geology at Melbourne University proposed formation of the Mining Corps to the Federal Government early in 1915 and by June 1916 the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company was operational near Armentieres.

The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, under Major J. Douglas Henry took over the tunnels and mines at Hill 60 on 9 November 1916.

John Laffin’s Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western Front describes Hill 60 as:
“One of the most famous positions on the Western Front , the hill had been formed in the 19th century from the spoil of a deep railway cutting. ….. The hill’s height of 60 metres gave it immense strategic importance in a flat country and both sides continually fought for it. The British tunnelled into the hill in 1915 and 1916 to plant mines which killed many Germans when they exploded. 

Photo: AWM E01396, Menin Road Area, Hooge, September 1917. Members of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company excavating at Hooge, in the Ypres Sector. http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/E01396

“The  Company’s primary job was to keep intact two great mines being prepared for a major assault to break the enemy front.  The galleries’ drainage and ventilation was poor and to improve them the Australians sank a metal-lined shaft 130 metres from a main junction.  They drove an additional gallery under the German line, about 400 metres distance.  The shaft was coded Sydney, the drive leading to it Melbourne, while defensive galleries were called Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Newcastle and Hobart.

Photo: AWM E02095, Menin Road Area, Hooge, 18 September 1917, A communication trench 25 feet below the surface, excavated by the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, in the Ypres sector. Owing to the sodden nature of the earth the passage ways had to be heavily timbered. 3607 Sergeant A. Hood has been up to his knees in mud. http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/E02095

“Protecting the mines from the Germans involved the Diggers in ferocious underground fighting. The work was arduous and exhausting and six months’ service in the tunnels of Hill 60 was regarded as the limit of strain any troops could stand.  In one sector, the Australian listeners reported that enemy miners were so close that their tools were shaking the earth in the Australian tunnel. They packed a ton of ammonal into the end of their tunnel and on 16 December 1916 fired it. Recovering from this shock, the Germans continued their efforts to dig under the shallower Australian tunnels and blow them up. In March , April and May 1917 the Australians were tunneling 5.5 metres per day in their efforts to prepare great mines for the impending attack on Messines Ridge.

Photo: AWM E01911 6 July 1917. Looking from an old crater on the north side of Hill 60, over the shell pitted ground towards Zillebeke Lake.

The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company took over mining operations and mine fighting from the Canadians on Hill 60, the Canadians having previously taken over from the British. For months the underground workings had been dug and re-dug, lost and recaptured, until finally with a tremendous charge of 123,500 pounds of explosive, the Australians blew the craters in the opening phase of the battle of Messines, on 7 June 1917. The result was particularly deadly, for the mine was stated by the Germans to have taken up with it a whole company of Wurtumbergers, and prepared the way for the advance of the British troops over this area. Note the soldier standing to the left of a large water filled crater. http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/E01911

“Among the 1st Tunnelling Company were a father and son from the coal mines of Wallsend NSW,  Sapper J. B. Snedden and Sapper W. F. Snedden. J. B. was killed in action on 7 april 1917 when German miners blew a camouflet and buried him.”  Sapper J. B. Snedden is buried in Railway Dugouts Burial ground (Transport Farm) Zillibeke (Grave 7.K.21).

“Every moment underground was dangerous. Sapper J. T. Landrigan was entombed by a German explosion and survived only because of the frantic rescue digging by his comrades.

“On 25 May a German mine explosion separately entombed two Diggers, Sapper E. W. Earl and Sapper G. Simpson. Earl continued to listen to enemy noises and managed to write a report about them, He tapped out signals on the wall which twenty four hours later were heard. A close friend, Sergeant H. Fraser, led non-stop rescue digging and on 27 May Earl and then Simpson, were brought out. Earl handed over his valuable reports. Suffering from the effects of asphyxia, his breathing chronically hampered, he died three months later. Other Diggers died of asphyxiation while trying to rescue mates.

Photo: AWM P02228.001 Ypres, Belgium. c. 1923. A monument erected at Hill 60 to commemorate men of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, who died during mining operations between November 1916 and July 1917. This structure replaced an earlier one constructed in 1919 by the Company. This replacement is very plain and bears no symbols whereas the first memorial was surmounted by a cross. http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/P02228.001

Further reading on the Australian Tunnelling Companies:
Finlayson, Damien; Hades’ Henchmen: The Australian Tunnelling Companies and ‘Alphabet Company’ 1916-1919, Stand To, The Journal of the Western Front Association, No 83 August/September 2008, pps4-11

Finlayson, Damien; Crumps and Camouflets – The Story of Australian Tunnelling Companies in France and Belgium 1916-1919, to be published by the Army History Unit in 2010.  The book also covers the Australian Electrical & Mechanical Mining & Boring Coy – but not to the same extent as the tunnelling coys.

Tunnellers Research website http://www.tunnellers.net

Australian War Memorial, Australian Tunnelling Companies Diaries at http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/war_diaries/first_world_war/subclass.asp?levelID=1667

Davies, Will; Beneath Hill 60, Vintage Press, Australia, 2010


The Families and Friends of the First AIF applauds the joint Australian–UK decision, announced by The Hon Greg Combet AM MP and the Hon Kevan Jones MP, to conduct a full DNA testing program on the remains of Australian and British soldiers found in mass graves at Pheasant Wood (Fromelles), and for their continuing commitment to identify as many of the fallen as is possible. We also thank the Australian, UK and French governments for affording dignified individual reburials for these soldiers, buried by German soldiers following the Battle of Fromelles on 19/20 July 1916, in the new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery presently under construction at Fromelles.

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