Black Country Miners enlisted as Tunnel Builders at the Somme 1915

Penny W-TStarred Page By Penny W-T, 16th Jun 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>History

There was an interesting programme on TV recently about the secret tunnels that the British Army built at the Somme, in preparation for the battle that was brewing in that area with the German forces. Apparently both sides were secretly digging tunnels to undermine the trenches where their soldiers were dug in.

179 Tunnelling Company - Royal Engineers 1915

In October 1915, 179 Tunnelling Company, the Royal Engineers, began to sink a series of deep shafts around their front line, to try and stop the German forces from approaching from beneath it. The resulting passages, named the Glory Hole by British troops, run under and around the sleepy village of La Boisselle in northern France, which was of huge strategic importance to the 1916 Battle of the Somme.
Because of the problems being encountered, it was decided by ‘the powers that be’ that experienced miners from the British coal mines, should be recruited to carry out this mission. As the miners had protected job status because of the importance of coal to the war effort, these men were not required to enlist in the normal way, but many of them from across the coal fields of Britain answered the call. Most were a mining 'elite' sent from collieries across Britain, many of them were men who in the normal situation would have been classed as too old to enlist, but they were whisked away for training and became part of the Royal Engineers – 179 Tunnelling Company.

Proximity of Front Lines

Apparently the reason for the tunnelling was due to the fact that the two front lines were so close to each other that both sides decided to dig tunnels under the other line, in order to place bombs beneath the trenches and so blow up the enemy. At one point it is thought that altogether, there were over 900 people working underground in this area.
My attention to this programme was caught and held when it was mentioned that in November 1915 the Germans succeeded in placing bombs in their tunnels, which killed six of the Royal Engineers and seven infantrymen also assisting with the work. Amongst the bodies never recovered were two men from Staffordshire, John Lane and Ezekiel Parkes.
A lot of research at this site is still on-going, with expert archaeologists and historians digging up the past, so perhaps the bodies of these missing men may finally be recovered

Local Connections

My curiosity was aroused because of the proximity to my own area that these men had lived, and they worked at Baggeridge Colliery which was located in Tipton, then part of the county of Staffordshire.
Ezekiel Parkes was 37, with a wife Fanny, and six children, four girls and two boys, living at Victoria Street, Princes End. John Lane, was 45, also from Tipton. He lived in Coppice Street, Tipton, with his wife and four children. Some records say he was 45 years old, others say 47, but whatever age he was, he did not need to go to war. Neither man needed to enlist, as they were over the age limit and their civilian occupation was vital to the war effort, but apparently, Ezekiel, John and other miners finished their shift one Saturday lunchtime and went to the pub for a few drinks. They then left together and went off to enlist as a group. This was in August 1915. From my research, it is implied that both men were ‘fast-tracked’, to use a modern phrase, to the front line. They were experienced miners and so would have needed little training to do the job they were intended for. After just a week in training at Chatham they were despatched to the front. Three months later, these two were killed in the explosion in these underground tunnels.

Actual battle of the Somme in 1916

Actual battle at The Somme took place between 1 July and 18th November 1916
The battle of the Somme is controversial because of the tactics employed and was significant as tanks were used for the first time. On the first day of fighting the British lost more than 19,000 men and 420,000 in total. Sixty per cent of all officers involved on the first day were killed. The battle at the Somme was perhaps the worst loss of life during the whole war period.

New Research

In 2011 when the La Boisselle Study Group announced its intention to investigate the tunnel system, there were several newspaper features, discussing in depth what was happening, so I will not go into that material again. But the details are fascinating and create curiosity. (See References)
The Glory Hole has been practically undisturbed since 1918 and the La Boisselle Study Group plans to investigate as much of the buildings, trenches, dugouts, shelters and tunnels as possible. This could take up to ten years and the site will eventually be opened up to the public as a memorial. However, there are no plans to recover the bodies of Ezekiel Parkes and John Lane. They were colleagues in peace and wartime, they lived less than a mile apart, and now lie together deep beneath the French soil — and will remain so.

References for researched material.

Black Country Bugle 2011
Daily Mirror 2011
Centre for First World War Studies/University of Birmingham
Mail on Line November 2011


Baggeridge Colliery, Battle Of The Somme, Great War, La Boiselle, Local History Connections, Secret Tunnel Builders

Meet the author

author avatar Penny W-T
Published articles on education themes, travel, history and writing techniques. Written a book on WW1 - Gallipoli, and travel books. Run a marketing network for small businesses.

Share this page

moderator Mark Gordon Brown moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar femalemlls2
16th Jun 2013 (#)


Share a website with you ,

( )

Believe you will love it.

We accept any form of payment.

Reply to this comment

author avatar cnwriter..carolina
16th Jun 2013 (#)

another great piece Penny...

Reply to this comment

author avatar Penny W-T
16th Jun 2013 (#)

Thank you CNW. It is amazing what you discover when you start to scratch the surface of a story.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Eileen Ward Birch
16th Jun 2013 (#)

It is indeed, mostly. You seem to have a way of researching.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Penny W-T
16th Jun 2013 (#)

Thank you Eileen. I often find additonal facts to an article quite by accident.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Delicia Powers
17th Jun 2013 (#)

What a great page and research- much appreciated Penny...

Reply to this comment

author avatar Penny W-T
17th Jun 2013 (#)

Thank you Delicia. One piece of my research keeps leading me to others, and others and yet others. Its great fun

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?