Maclean’s has published more than 66,000 covers, each one dedicated to an individual Canadian who died in the First World War.
Featured image: The statue known as Mother Canada looks out over Vimy Ridge as part of the memorial commemorating Canadian war losses near Arras, France.
If you hold a paper version of Maclean’s, consider closing this issue for a moment to read the dedication on the cover. You’ll find the name of a Canadian serviceman or woman whose life was snuffed out more than a century ago in what became known as the “Great War.”
Where possible, we also list their rank, age and date of death. But even such tombstone details for thousands of soldiers were lost in the chaos of war or the mists of time.
This compounds the tragedy of Canada’s deadliest war, for surely we owe them this: respect for their courage, and remembrance for their ultimate sacrifice; lessons written in blood and, as history shows, too easily forgotten.
Trench warfare – where opposing forces faced each other across battle grounds in trenches and sought to advance on one another to gain ground – is a well known aspect of the First World War.
What is less well known is the underground battle being fought simultaneously. The Battle of the Somme is noted for having been fought above and below ground.
While soldiers fought above ground, a network of tunnels was being dug under their feet and extending towards enemy territory and eventually under their trenches. Once the tunnels reached their target, explosives were laid and detonated underneath or close to enemy lines – a technique literally known as ‘undermining’.
The Battle of the Somme, lasting four months from July 1st in 1916, was one of the largest battles fought in the First World War and is infamous for the huge losses suffered by both sides. Over 1.5 million lives were lost; on the opening day alone the British suffered over 57,000 casualties – a figure higher than the casualties suffered in the Crimean, Boer and Korean wars combined.
Little has been known about the tunneling side of the Somme, but craters clearly visible today, including the enormous Lochnager Crater south of La Boisselle, is evidence of the violent explosions stemming from tunneling.
In the case of the Lochnager Crater, it came about due to the detonation of 27 tonnes of explosives planted in a 1,000 feet tunnel. The resultant blast sent debris flying 4,000 feet into the air.
Sewer men become military tunnelers.
Britain’s skill and experience creating efficient sewer networks had a direct influence on tunneling expertise being swiftly deployed on First World War battlefields.
Civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette designed and oversaw the construction and revamping of London’s sewers that were considered the single largest contribution to the health of those living in the capital. Some 1,300 miles of sewers, finished in 1885, are remarkably well preserved and still in full use today.
Other growing cities needed a similar solution, so sewer construction became a major engineering activity underneath many British cities. Men working beneath the streets of Manchester would soon find themselves digging tunnels under battlefields in France.
A unique military unit.
Eccentric but entrepreneurial MP and engineering company owner Major John Norton-Griffiths believed his specialist sewer workers possessed the ideal technique to give the British a telling battlefield advantage. A technique called ‘clay kicking’.
Norton-Griffiths knew that the geology of Flanders, mostly clay, was similar to that of Manchester where his men were working. A technique involving the men sitting and pushing a sharp cutting implement into the clay with their legs to cut through it was proving highly efficient.
Norton-Griffiths persuaded Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, to give it a try in combat circumstances in a mimed demonstration of the technique in his office. In the wake of successful mining offensives by the Germans, a trial was immediately ordered and suddenly 20 sewer men – dubbed the ‘Manchester Moles’ by their employer – found themselves being enlisted and bound for the battlefields of Belgium and France.
While traditional soldiers would have spent several months in training for the front, the tunnelers had a matter of days since it was purely their tunneling expertise that was required here.
Swift expansion of the Manchester Moles.
From a handful of experts from Manchester, the number of tunnelers expanded to some 25,000 by the middle of 1916 augmented by many more laborers who did the fetching and carrying.
Battle conditions were a big shock to the system for the tunnelers compared to tunneling at home. While constructing sewers underneath British cities was hardly risk-free, tunneling under battlefields was highly dangerous. Various hazards such as deadly carbon monoxide gas, collapsing tunnels and drowning were just three risks the subterranean workers had to contend with.
Then of course there was the sheer danger of being close to the enemy; the Germans were also tunneling and could be within mere feet of their British counterparts. Somehow – despite engaging in a noisy activity such as tunneling – care had to be taken so as not to be heard easily by the possible nearby enemy. Likewise, the tunnelers also had to become skilled in listening out for enemy mining activity.
The geology under the Somme battlefield was mainly chalk as opposed to the clay of Flanders, so it was riskier for tunnelers since digging through it was a noisier process compared to the softer clay. Digging through chalk required mining skills, so some infantrymen who had been coal miners in civilian life were deployed to tunneling duties and large numbers of colliery workers were sent to the front from the coalfaces back home.
The sewer men’s recognition.
A huge British mining success occurred in June 1917 when 19 large mines were exploded between the Messiness Ridge in Belgian Flanders. The blasts could apparently be heard some 150 miles away back in London and some 10,000 German soldiers died; the immediate aftermath enabled enemy positions to be captured in a matter of hours.
The success of tunneling all started when a handful of Manchester sewer men, due to the gung-ho attitude of their employer, were sent at a few days’ notice to start digging what became some 3,000 miles of tunnels under the First World War battlefields in France, Gallipoli and Belgium. At the end of the conflict, 12 of the original 18 Mancunian sewer men survived.