KLEIN ZILLEBEKE, SEPTEMBER 1916.

By Peter Barton – Parapet Productions

By the beginning of 1916 German forces dominated every ridge on the arc of the Ieper and Messines Salients – except one. At Mount Sorrel between the Menin Road and Hill 60 allied troops had repeatedly held out against persistent attempts to capture a bastion which had become a thorn in the German side. The stalemate at Mount Sorrel typified the attack and counter-attack nature of the Western Front where complex fortifications were proven time and again to be either unbreakable or untenable. Here on the sandy knolls adjacent to Armagh and Sanctuary Woods, as in many other locations, the deadlock on the surface was also mirrored in a bizarre and highly secret conflict fought deep beneath the killing fields of no man’s land.

Mine warfare in the Ypres Salient had been growing in intensity since the early days of the war. Its origins in ancient siege warfare were replicated on a grand scale in the stasis of trench warfare, and military mining flourished. By the middle of 1916 it was widespread along the full length of the Western Front and vast labyrinths of underground galleries had been driven by British, German, French, Australian and Canadian engineers. These men were engaged in a private war, a war which was largely divorced from that being waged on the surface, and one which contained almost unbelievable drama and heroism – yet it remained almost unreported for many decades after 1918. In September 1916, the Mount Sorrel tunnels hosted one of the most extraordinary underground incidents of the Great War. What happened beneath the surface was overlooked by diarists and historians at the time. It would be almost 40 years later that the story was at last retold by Lieutenant John Westacott of the 2nd. Canadian Tunnelling Company – who had seen more than enough of the affair.

It was not uncommon for a section of tunnellers to struggle cold and wet from their shaftheads at the end of a night shift to find a different battalion holding the front line trenches to that which had been in possession the previous day. On the morning of September 16th. 1916 Lt. John Westacott and his sergeant emerged blinking from the cramped and sodden depths. Vibrations from heavy shelling had shuddered down into their subterranean workings during the night and Westacott wanted to check for shell damage to his mine entrances on the surface. In their heavy rubber boots the two men began to negotiate the narrow traverses of the front line trench; from the battered state of parapet and parados it was clear there had been artillery action.

When his 80 man section had dissappeared into the depths six hours earlier the front lines had been garrisoned by British and Canadian troops, but as Westacott began his reconnaissance and turned into the very first firebay he found it was no longer occupied by the usual grubby and disgruntled khaki-clad Tommies, but by men in field grey – Germans! Unknown to the tunnellers working 10 metres below, the line had been lost during the night – the shelling they had heard and felt had been the precursor to a successful enemy raid. Westacott had almost collided with the German soldiers – the surprise and disbelief was mutual – both parties glared at each other for a moment before the Canadians turned, ran, and leapt into the nearest shaft, shouting for the alarm bell to be rung.

The Germans soon followed. Clambering into the narrow shaft they came singly at first, and man after man was sent down the ladderway into the galleries beneath. As each arrived at the bottom they were grabbed by the tunnellers, dragged around a corner, and shot. The Germans tried dropping two men at a time – with the same result. A dozen men had been killed when Westacott decided to blow the shafthead, and many other entrances along his half-mile tunnel system. Only one, which had been camouflaged with sandbags, was to be left undisturbed. Posting sentries at the bottom of each shaft to warn of any German attempts to dig through, he ordered all candles to be extinguished and electric torches to be checked. The Canadians prepared themselves for a fight.

Most of the tunnel galleries at Mount Sorrel were built in the ‘offensive’ style, just a metre wide and little greater in height – impossible for even the smallest of men to stand upright. A full section of tunnellers were now trapped inside the labyrinths beneath the hill, with all but one of their entrance shafts blocked; no pumps were working at the surface and it would not be very long before air quality began to deteriorate. Any underground fighting would make things infinitely worse. But Westacott had had personal experience of such a battle only a few months earlier and advised his troops carefully.

For the Germans, capture of the British mine system was matter of pride. They had at last seized Mount Sorrel after many attempts and many losses, and now commanded every ridge in the Ypres Salient; they were fiercely determined to hold it – and take final control of the underground battlefield as well. They decided to dig out a number of shafts to attack several tunnels at the same time. Below, Westacott spread his men out so that any point of entry could be swiftly reinforced. It was a game of cat and mouse – with no second place for the loser.

The Canadians were armed with revolvers, grenades, and a special kind of dagger with a short blade called a knuckle-knife which was strapped to the wrist by leather thongs and was devised so that when the fist was
clenched the blade projected at right angles to the hand – more like a claw than a knife. Everyone hoped they would not have to use them but, as Westacott had expected, the German troops broke through and began to advance down the tunnels. The Canadians waited in the darkness – and in silence – around barricaded traverses until the enemy drew close, and then opened fire:

‘ They kept rushing us, two or three men, with bayonets, and they were throwing grenades too. The place was smoky and the grenades were bringing a lot of the sap ( tunnel ) down with it. We were managing to hold them for three or four hours around the traverse, but then they kept smashing so much stuff in, the smoke was bad, we kept pulling our own men out – they got a lot of us you know.’

The Germans penetrated Westacott’s defences in several places and eventually the dreaded hand to hand fighting broke out. In close combat the beam of a torch was an easy target for a revolver so they had been extinguished – the fighting continued in impenetrable darkness. It was in these conditions that the knuckle-knife came into it’s own as it was light, easy to wield, and impossible to lose as it was tightly strapped to the fist. But the problem was now one of recognising friend from foe in the blackness – knowing who to kill and who not to. The mundane solution lay in the design of military uniforms – the German troops wore epaullettes on their shoulders, the Canadians had none. This meant that any potential foe had to be felt before he was stabbed :

‘ The only thing was to put your hand over quick, to feel if the man had any epaulettes. It was murder down there – I’ve had some shocking nightmares since. We lost a lot of men; in the rough and tumble and in the darkness they’d rush us and we’d lose two or three men. We got so jammed up that I decided to pull back, and I went back 50 yards or so to a sort of cross-roads where I could work from two points. We held that right up to the afternoon. We had a terrible scrap down there; he had a lot of men, he seemed to push them through just like a sausage machine. I’d never seen anything like it – as fast as we got them down, there would be somebody on top of you again. The corpses blocked the place right up, we had to drag them out before we could do anything. But we knew our mines, knew our own workings – they didn’t. The German infantryman was always at a disadvantage not knowing anything about tunnels, and it must have been frightening for them fighting in that small dark area.’

The struggle continued through the afternoon and parts of the galleries became choked with dead. The Canadians were exhausted, and sick from gas fumes from grenades and the smell of blood. The constant German pressure meant that it had not been possible to open a shaft entrance to clear the air and Westacott had been forced to give the only order possible : ” Fight it out until the end.” Towards late afternoon the enemy was still pressing :

‘We did our dressing where we could. We’d pull the men back round the corner and down to my own headquarters – we’d turned that into a dressing station. I got my own injury from a grenade. A few sappers and myself were in D Section  when the Germans blew out a corner of our barricade and started throwing grenades at us. I put my left arm up to protect my head from the blast and my elbow was shattered. I was blown off my feet by the explosion and then dragged out. Many of my men were gassed by the grenades – carbon monoxide.’

Westacott lay on the tunnel floor unaware that 60 of his 80 man shift had already become casualties. It was only a matter of time before the final debacle. But unexpectedly the German attacks began to dissolve :

‘ We could tell something was going on….the Jerries pulled out late in the afternoon – they sort of gave it up – something we were very thankful for. Those sappers fought well and never gave their ground. It was ‘no surrender’ with them, and they would have fought till the last man dropped. We could not have lasted more than a few hours longer before we should all have been gone as we had such a small number of men left, and these totally exhausted. ‘

But as time passed the silence became worrying – what were the enemy planning? More hours passed without further incident. On the morning of the 17th. September the tunnellers summoned the courage to creep from
their shafts to assess the situation on the surface. As they gingerly peered out into the trench they would experience one of those moments of supreme irony for which the Great War above all other conflicts is renowned – their first glimpse into the front line revealed a group of grubby Tommies making tea. During a night counter-attack the infantry had retaken their original positions and Mount Sorrel was once more back in British hands.

This counter-attack received great attention – the glorious pluck and spirit of the infantry was paraded across the front pages of every newspaper in the British Empire – whilst the endeavours of the Canadian tunnellers went unoticed and unsung. No decorations were received – not even a mention in despatches – as far as the rest of the world was concerned it had been another trench raid gallantly repulsed by the infantry.

Lt. John Westacott spent a year in hospital and was sent back to the Western Front in September 1917 on demolition and booby-trap detection duties. He never regained the use of his left arm.
‘ Tunnelling!! All the tension all the time – it was terrible. Because of the strain underground….. and the darkness. It did get you down a bit. Do you know – I’d send the batman for a mug of rum before I got out of bed in the morning!’

John Westacott
February 1960
With thanks to the Royal Engineers Museum

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Peter Barton is an established First World War historian, writer, filmmaker and consultant well-known for devising and leading archaeological excavations on the Western Front, especially those connected to tunnel warfare. His first venture underground was on the Somme in 1984.

He currently is involved in the La Boisselle Project, which is a detailed long-term archaeological, historical, technological and genealogical study of a battlefield in the village of La Boisselle, Somme. http://www.laboisselleproject.com/

Published with permission

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