Miners in the Trenches
How the skill and determination of miners from around the world was used as part of the war effort
When war was declared in August 1914, thousands of men from Britain rallied and joined up. Many of these were coal miners, men who worked deep underground in often dangerous conditions. They would have seen the chance to leave their communities and travel overseas as an exciting opportunity. For some of them, they would head underground only this time, instead of it being in the coalfields of home, it would be under the battlefields of the western front.
In an effort to break the stalemate, both sides resorted to tunnelling under the other’s trench. Once under, explosives would be set and once detonated, would be followed by infantry attacks.
The tunneling was mainly carried out by these miners, and it was almost as terrifying as digging for coal. There was the risk of tunnel collapse and explosions like there was down a coal mine, but there was the added danger of coming across an enemy tunnel and being forced into brutal hand to hand combat deep underground.
Miners played an integral part in the war effort. One of the most notable episodes was at the Battle of Messines in 1917 where 455 tons of explosive placed in 21 tunnels that had taken more than a year to prepare created a huge explosion that killed an estimated 10,000 Germans. It provided a chance for the allies to push the Germans back yet, like so often during the bloody stalemate, the ground was lost through counter attacks.
The blast at Messines was the most powerful ever experienced in history. The explosion could be felt as far away as London and Dublin, and it was made possible by miners from across the commonwealth.
The First World War introduced all new types of fighting, and the pulsating underground chapter of the war was also something which had never been experienced before. Whilst most of the war was dictated by aggressive infantry attacks often resulting in the death of thousands of soldiers, the battles below the surface were fought in silence. Small tunnels lit only by candles, digging as quietly as possible and knowing that your next breath could be your last would have made the life of miners in the trenches overwhelming.
Not all miners were called up. Many were required to stay at home and continue digging coal to keep the nation moving as mining was placed in the category of essential work.
Whether it was down the collieries of the UK or under the battlefields of Belgium and Northern France, the miners were vital cogs during a war in which so many suffered. Yet despite this, they would return home to economic hardship and be forced to fight a whole new battle. This time, it would be to save their jobs and feed their families.
Society has usually always been unforgiving to miners but their efforts during the war, and the Second World War just 20 years later, can never be underestimated.