The War Beneath the Trenches

Though it existed before WWI, trench warfare was so commonly used during that conflict that the two are now inexorably linked. Less well-known—in fact, barely known about at all—were the battles that took place even farther into the earth, in the dark, silent tunnels that stretched beneath the trenches.

Perhaps the most notable name to go along with this particular piece of history is that of John Norton-Griffiths, an MP for Wednesbury, Staffordshire, and, significantly, an engineer with a specialty in mining.

Sir John Norton GriffithsSir John Norton Griffiths Fri, Oct 10, 1930 – Page 15 · Argus-Leader (Sioux Falls, South Dakota) · Newspapers.com

It was his idea to form bands of skilled miners to tunnel into enemy territory (or more accurately, beneath it). Mining teams would deflect opposing tunneling teams and place mines under enemy lines themselves. It was slow, tense work. German tunnelers were digging at the same time, and neither side knew if or when they might stumble into the path of the other. Always there was the possibility of running out of oxygen, being buried alive, or being blown up by enemy miners.

Mining warfareMining warfare Sun, Jul 11, 1915 – 28 · The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska) · Newspapers.com

The strength of this secretive style of fighting showed itself most in the early hours of June 7, 1917, at Messines Ridge in northern France. British tunnelers had managed to evade German opposition in the world beneath the surface and successfully used the tunnels to detonate mines directly beneath German trenches. The effect was devastating on German troops; 10,000 soldiers were killed and the rest quickly overcome in the attack that followed above ground.

John Norton-Griffiths mining schemeJohn Norton-Griffiths mining scheme Sun, Sep 28, 1930 – 18 · The Observer (London, Greater London, England) · Newspapers.com

Explosion at Messines RidgeExplosion at Messines Ridge Sat, Jun 16, 1917 – Page 1 · Fair Play (Sainte Genevieve, Missouri) · Newspapers.com

Mine explosions at Messines RidgeMine explosions at Messines Ridge Sat, Jun 16, 1917 – Page 1 · Fair Play (Sainte Genevieve, Missouri) · Newspapers.com

The blast was so profoundly loud that it was said to be heard as far as London, 140 miles away.

British premier David Lloyd George hears blast from LondonBritish premier David Lloyd George hears blast from London Sat, Jun 16, 1917 – Page 1 · Fair Play (Sainte Genevieve, Missouri) · Newspapers.com

After Messines the pace of the war outstripped the speed of the miners, and the tactic of tunneling fell out of significant and practical use. The skills of Norton-Griffiths’ tunneling companies were redistributed in other arenas, now mostly above ground. Only after the end of WWI did knowledge of this underground war begin to come to light.

Find more on John Norton-Griffiths, the mining companies of the Royal Engineers, and the Battle of Messines with a search on Newspapers.com.

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One thought on “The War Beneath the Trenches

  1. WOW!!! I had never read about this action before!!! Fascinating…………

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