From earliest times man has sought to leave his/her mark on the eternal world. For many this has taken the route of children, achievements, success, monuments. But for others, men and women of more modest circumstances this has taken a different path toward immortality.
French historians have recently (re)discovered a chalk quarry located about 50 miles from the site of the Battle of the Somme, in France. The site located near Naours, dates back hundreds of years, but was abandoned for long stretches of time.
Soldiers stationed in the region carved their names and addresses into the soft rock in the mines and created a lasting impression of their presence in a conflict which was to obliterate all traces of individuality from combatants. The loss of over a million men at the adjacent Somme throughout 1916 only served to reinforce this absence.
Whilst volumes have been written regarding the battles which took place above ground, comparatively little attention has been paid to the actions of those working behind the scenes and literally underground. Both the Allied and Central powers sought an advantage in the increasingly attritional conflict. Whilst some sought their answers in technological advances such as conquering the skies or the creation of the tank, others turned to the earth favoured an approach as old as warfare itself. As time went on efforts were mounted by both sides to attempt to tunnel under the battlefield (and the enemy’s lines), alternately emerging to wreak havoc or to detonate explosives (Messines) and allow conventional infantry to exploit the weakness created.
Recently this Combat Engineer role has been demonstrated on popular television programmes such as Time Team and Peaky Blinders. The extreme stressors which these men faced and the resulting post-stress symptoms which manifested themselves speak volumes about the difficulties encountered in the subterranean warfare. For those interested, a more modern comparrison would be the conflict between the Viet Cong tunnelers and U.S./Australian Army in Vietnam, most notably ‘Operation Crimp’ or the Battle of Ho Bo Woods.’