Miners at World War 1 Researched by John Lumsdon

During World War I miners often dug tunnels, and placed mines in them


The main objective of these mines was to destroy part of an enemy trench, and then attack during the confusion. Soldiers eventually developed strategies for discovering enemy tunnels. One method was to put one end of a stick in the ground, and the other end on your teeth to feel vibrations.Another method was to sink a water-filled oil drum into the floor of the trench, and lower your ear into the water to listen to noise being made by people tunneling. It took a long time to dig a tunnel. Sometimes it took a year. Occasionally miners would dig into their enemy's tunnels, starting an underground fight

Typically there would be 4 tunnellers working at the face (one of whom would be resting), plus 2 tunnellers mates handling trolley, air pumping and preparation of timber. Generally infantry working parties were employed to remove the spoil from the shaft heads and dispose of it. (One foot run of subway created 70 sandbags of spoil). At any time a Tunnelling Coy would have several digging parties working towards each other. A common pattern was that in each Section three of the four shifts would be in line, each for 4 days, and one shift resting or on light duties out of line for 4 days. Shifts normally worked underground for 8 hours in every 24 hours. The 16 hours ‘off’ included moving into and out of the line.

Early in the June of 1915, Mr Arthur B. Clifford was appointed to the rank of Lance Corporal and sent out to begin the training of officers and men in the use of mine rescue apparatus, and was solely responsible for this work until October of the same year.

During this time his work was carried out under enormous difficulties in that he was asked to train 3000 mine rescuers in a month with only 36 sets of PROTO being available in the country at the time.

In June 1916 (the peak month), along the line of the British front, the British fired 101 mines or camouflets; the Germans fired 126; a total of 227 in the month.

The site of the largest of the 19 mine explosions detonated to signal the start of the Messines phase of Third Ypres, 91,000lb ammonal explosion was set off at 0310 on 7 June 1917 underneath one of the then highest German front-line positions on Messines Ridge. The sound of the 19 mine explosions was apparently heard as faraway as Dublin, and in Downing Street itself. It was considered the loudest man-made sound until that point.

Presentation of Meritorious Service Medal To Sergeant Clifford

During the proceedings of the annual dinner of the North Staffordshire Institute of Engineers at the North Stafford Hotel, on Monday evening, Sir John Cadman, K.C.M.G. presented the Meritorious Service Medal to Sergeant Clifford of the Royal Engineers, who was assistant instructor at the North Staffordshire Mines Rescue Station.

Sir John said he considered a great privilege to be asked to present that medal, particularly because it related to a subject he was particularly very much interested in. Sergeant Clifford acted as assistant to his father as instructor of the North Staffordshire Mines Rescue Brigades, from the beginning of 1912 up to the end of 1914, when he went out to Mexico, to undertake similar work there.

The particular work he did in Mexico happen to be more or less connected with work that he (Sir John) was associated with, that was, in connection with the development of the great oilfields there. He need not remind them that emergencies arose in those oilfields. On one occasion one of the great Mexican wells took fire, and millions of tons of oil were ignited. It was necessary to introduce methods, which were new to science and new to oilfield technology and it fell to one from North Staffordshire to undertake that work.

Sergeant Clifford was sent out to Mexico to stop the flow of oil from which the fire originated. He returned from Mexico in April 1915, with the intention of enlisting, and he attested for the North Staffordshire Regiment, but the next day he was called to the War Office by wire, and asked to go out to France, to take charge of the Proto mines rescue apparatus, which was just being sent out. Again, this was a matter of which he (Sir John) happened to have some knowledge. At that time mining had become an important adjunct to our army. Trench warfare had set in, and the armies were digging themselves in against each other and the method of dealing with defences was to send troops out, over the top, troops who were unfitted at that time for such perilous work. They had to face a great barrier of barbed wire, and those who had seen it would realise the absolute impossibility of penetrating that intricate system of barbed wiring which the Boche had put up.

Sapping the Wire Entanglements

At the time we had not much artillery and ammunition to smash this barbed wire to pieces, we were compelled to adopt something, which was very familiar to everybody in that room, but which the army were not acquainted with. It was necessary to burrow under these entanglements and fill in these galleries with explosives, so that the obstructions could be removed before the troops went over. That was a game both sides played at and an extraordinary state of affairs existed, for the explosions filled the galleries with gases in such proportions that they were even having explosions of carbon monoxide in these galleries, and it was impossible for the sapper to do his work.

It was found necessary to send out to France, self-contained breathing apparatus and they were sent out packed beautifully in boxes. He could imagine the first set of Royal Engineers who picked them up wondering how they were to be used. Then it occurred to some brilliant person there that they must have someone to teach them how to wear them. So they sent for Sergeant Clifford, and he set to work in an improvised station about three miles behind the lines, to teach men to use the apparatus.

As several thousand men were required to be trained at once, they asked for volunteers among the miners who were trained in the use of the Proto. These volunteers went to France and he (the speaker) happened to know that, extraordinarily good work was done by those gallant men who went out from North Staffordshire.

Battlefield Rescue Work

Sergeant Clifford set up his first rescue station in Armentieres, with about a hundred sets of apparatus and began training men in large batches. Later a regular scheme was put in operation, a scheme that he ventured to think, when it became properly known,

would have had done a great deal for mining engineering. The mines rescue brigade associated with the Army brought to a state of efficiency the training of men in mines rescue work, which it would have been impossible for mining communities to do themselves under ordinary conditions. For there they had been dealing with military conditions, which enabled the training of men to be carried out in a way that was impossible under ordinary district organisation.

Sergeant Clifford’s duties were to train the men, distribute the apparatus, and inspect the dugouts used as front line rescue stations in the trenches, seeing that the apparatus in them was in good order and ready for instant use. Also to hold himself ready, as did instructors at home to set off to an accident requiring his service. Each Army had its own organisation eventually, and daily, was undertaking the work of penetrating the galleries, in many of which the atmosphere was irrespirable.

Throughout the war, the Proto apparatus as used in that district was used with unqualified success, and hundreds of lives directly, and indirectly, were saved. It was a great thing to be able to say that such a service was instituted for saving life under such circumstances and a great deal of credit was due to the training carried out by Sergeant Clifford.

It has been his (Sir John’s) privilege on one occasion, when travelling through the Ypres Salient, to see Sergeant Clifford at work training the men with the apparatus under conditions that were very different from the conditions his father trained men in north Staffordshire.

The Meritorious Service Medal was awarded to Sergeant Clifford in June 1917, in recognition of the way the training and practical work in the line was done, very often in trying and difficult positions during a period of two years and he (the speaker) counted it a privilege indeed and he was sure the Institute did, also, that the Medal should be presented to Sergeant Clfford on that occasion.

Addressing Sergeant Clifford, who had been standing before him during his interesting explanation of the work so deservedly recognised by the award of the Medal, the President observed in conclusion, “ Sergeant Clifford, North Staffordshire is proud that you have gone out and done such service, and it is with great pleasure that I pin this Medal upon you.

Sergeant Clifford’s Reply

Sergeant Clifford said, that, that was a proud moment for him, and he could assure them it was, also an embarrassing one.

He should like to say with regard to North Staffordshire miners in the war that he never had a better set of men to work for him, and he had the good luck to be associated with a number of mining companies in the Second Army, stretching from the region of Bethune to the North of Yepres, and the majority of the miners in those tunnelling companies were from North Staffordshire.

Probably some of those present thought they owed him a grudge for taking so many trained men away, but he thought they would agree with him that they were doing better service in France than they were at home. The men sent out in 1917 helped him tremendously, as they were able to use the apparatus and in a few months he was able to train, the ordinary miners so that there were between 3.000 and 4.000 trained men at work at the time he came away.

He did not think men were better trained in any station in England than they were out there. The conditions were abnormal, for there was not only the gas to contend with, but at any time German mines might have blown them up, and there was also the danger of going to and from the line. He thanked them for the appreciation shown to him and the hearty applause meted to him.

Sergeant Clifford was recalled from France in 1918 to assist in the rescue and recovery at the Minnie pit explosion.

Sergeant A.B. Clifford in the Centre

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