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The Rock-itt : February 2014
vvvvvvvvvvvvvv v vv vvv by Simon Lyon, The Rock-itt’s Historian LEST WE FORGET Aussie Diggers UNDER the Trenches This month’s article deals with the largely forgotten stories of the many Australian and New Zealand men who served their country UNDER the battlefields. Some movies have enabled us all to understand a bit more about this underground warfare, and one book in particular, Sebastian Faulkes’ BIRDSONG, rec ently made into a TV movie has shown the horrendous conditions that these brave men went to war. Also the movie BENEATH HILL 60, depicting Australian Tunnelling Companies comprised of men f rom the mines in Australia gave the audience a very real view of the terrors and conditions below the Front Lines. HILL 60 was in fact a man made feature of the landscape, and it plus two other spoil heaps (The Caterpillar and The Dump) which had come about from spoil deposited when a railway cutting had been excavated to make way for the Ypres-Comines railway, formed a ridge that the Germans had quickly controlled after the 1st Battle of Ypres. British attempts to regain this ridge, which formed an important observation point in this sector of the Ypres Salient, involved digging several tunnels towards the German lines with a view to blowing them up in conjunction with an attack to regain control of these heights. Deep mining under the German galleries beneath Hill 60 began in late August 1915 with the 175th Tunnelling Company R.E. which began a gallery 220 yards (200 m) behind the British front line and passed 90 feet (27 m) beneath. The 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company took over in April 1916 and completed the galleries, the Hill 60 mine being charged with 53,300 pounds (24,200 kg) of explosives in July 1916 and a branch gallery under the Caterpillar filled with a 70,000-pound (32,000 kg) charge in October. The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company took over the galleries in November 1916, led in part by Captain Oliver Woodward and maintained the mines over the winter. At 3:10 a.m. on 7 June 1917, 19 mines filled with 450,000 kilograms (990,000 lb) of explosives, were detonated under the German lines. Although two mines did not explode, the blasts created one of the largest explosions in history, reportedly heard in London and Dublin, demolishing a large part of the hill and killing c. 10,000 German soldiers. The Battle of Messines (7–14 June 1917) was conducted by the British Second Army, under the command of General Herbert Plumer, on the Western Front near the village of Messines. The offensive forced the German Army to move reserves to Flanders from the Arras and Aisne fronts, which relieved pressure on the French Army., at a time when the French army was struggling due to losses incurred during the previous year’s conflict at Verdun. The tactical objective of the attack at Messines was to capture the German defences on the ridge, which ran from Ploegsteert Wood in the south through Messines and Wytschaete to Mt. Sorrel, to deprive the German Fourth Army of the high ground south of Ypres. The 19 mines exploded over a period of 19 seconds, mimicking the effect of an earthquake. Fifteen miles away in Lille, German troops ran around "panic- stricken". That the detonations were not simultaneous added to the effect on German troops, as the explosions moved along the front. Odd acoustic effects also added to the shock. A memorial to the Australian troops killed here during the course of the war was later placed at the site. Sadly the memorial plate to the Australian miners involved in the First World War bear the scars of another battle fought here by the BEF in 1940, before
March Rock-itt 2014