Constantine Cornwall

Battle Beneath the Trenches

Constantine History Group October 2017 Meeting Report

A grandfather’s silver cigarette case with an inscription began an investigation by Ken Johns, a retired ICT expert, into the work of the 251st Tunnelling Company resulting in a book “Battle Beneath the Trenches”. Ken shared his research with intrigued members of Constantine History Group at their October meeting.

The silver case led Ken to an archaeological dig near St Quentin, in the Pas de Calais le Nord region of France. Here tunnels beneath German trenches were being exhumed they included graffiti, candle sticks and other artefacts. The experience encouraged Ken to investigate further.

Mining under defences was a strategy learned by Europeans from experiences in the Middle East during the Crusades and it was deployed widely by both sides during World War 1. The British Expeditionary Force of 250,000 men was holding the German advance in 1915 but was experiencing the effects of successful German tunnelling and explosions under the front lines.

A successful engineer working in Manchester, Sir John Norton Griffiths, was engaged to recruit men and manage the tunnelling under the German defences. Not only did he recruit his own employees but he also sought out Cornish miners recruiting 220 from the 10th Battalion DCLI and established the 251st Tunnelling Company. Unlike the infantry who were paid 1/- members of the tunnelling companies were paid 6/-.

The Company were posted to Bethune to protect the northern coalfields. Their activity soon limited the German tunnelling and explosions to no man’s land. Excavations took the Cornish miners down to the aquifer working in both chalk and clay, this placed them underneath the German tunnels. Work took place in silence, each side established listening posts but despite this caution occasionally one side would break into the tunnels of the opposition and fighting in confined spaces followed.

The work was hard and required an intake of 4000 calories per day but was more about quantity than quality. The conditions were both dangerous and unpleasant and air had to be pumped to the tunnels. As the war progressed tunnelling became more about being on the offensive with huge explosions being detonated. Later on in the war the Company was involved in building machine gun posts, dugouts, magazines, dressing stations and the construction of anti tank traps. Following the Armistice on November 11th the Company were engaged in rebuilding infrastructure such as bridges and canals.

The 251st contributed significantly to protecting the coalfields and 178 of the original 220 survived their challenging experiences.

Ken’s grandfather, a tunneller, but not in the 251st, on return to Cornwall, decided not to go back into the mines but went to New York where he worked on the tramways for 9.5 years. On return to Cornwall he set up a successful transport business.

Don Garman, Secretary, thanked Ken for sharing his remarkable research with members.

The next meeting will be on November the 18th at 19.00 in the WI Hall Constantine. The short AGM will be followed by John Sheppard who will be giving a talk entitled “The History of Port Navas”. Visitors are welcome. Pasties will be available but please contact 01326 250604 to book.