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September 30th, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 38
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
A Nightmare at Mount Sorrel
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Photo courtesy of Beneath Flanders Fields book
Cap badge for the 192nd Crowsnest Battalion some of whom were recruited into the 2nd Tunnellers Company
According to the Canadian Military Engineering Museum the origin of the term ‘sapper” lies in the French word "sape," meaning undermine and the Middle French word "sap" that was a spade or a hoe. It seems that in medieval times armies laying siege to a fortification would dig a trench or “sap” up to the castle, then dig under or into the wall. They would then replace blocks of stone with wooden supports, set them on fire and thereby cause a section of wall to collapse. In the French Army driving a trench under fire was known as “driving a sap” and those who did this were called “sapeurs”.

Sappers became associated with military engineers and with the discovery of gunpowder engineers then used an explosive “mine” instead of fire to breach a wall. Just as privates in the artillery were referred to as gunners, field engineers with the rank of private were referred to as “Sappers” and were addressed thusly. Sapper Kinnear not Private Kinnear. Come to think of it I have met a few engineers in my day that were definitely saps but that is another story and another type of sap.

As I indicated in my last column the underground war conducted on the Western Front in the First World War was: “as bizarre and disturbing as anything I have ever researched in military history.” Having said that I would like to share with you just parts of a particular battle account of this enormously overlooked story of raw guts and bravery underground by sappers. It comes from the Royal Engineers Museum archives and was published by Peter Barton, a First World War historian, writer, filmmaker and consultant who has been leading archaeological excavations on the Western Front since 1984.
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I’ll preface parts of this account taken from Lieutenant John Westacott of the 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Company in 1960 with a little bit of the background on the battle in which he recollections occur. It involved an area in Belgium that was known as the Ypres Salient, scene of some of the biggest battles of the war. According to Barton, mining warfare in the Salient had been growing in intensity since the start of the war and by the middle of 1916 was widespread all along the front with vast labyrinths of underground galleries having been driven by British, German, French, Australian and Canadian engineers. German forces dominated almost every ridge of the Iper and Messines Salients but there was one ridge, Mount Sorrel, that kept them from controlling the whole area. It was on this ridge that an underground battle occurred the description of which left me speechless.

According to Barton it was not uncommon for tunnellers to emerge from their shaftheads and find a different battalion holding the front line trenches than when they went in. On the morning of September 16th, 1916 when Westacott and his sergeant emerged from the depths of their Mount Sorrel tunnelling to check on damage to their subterranean workings from overnight shelling it was an entirely different matter. As Westacott came to the very first firebay (straight section of trench) he encountered not Tommies but Germans. During the night a German offensive had overrun the area and they were immediately spotted and chased. Diving into the nearest shaft they shouted to ring the alarm bell for the 80 sappers that had been working in ten meter deep tunnels underground with them all night.
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Barton describes what came next: “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.”
What transpired down in those Canadian tunnels which were only a meter wide and not much higher was the stuff of one’s worst nightmares. To be trapped underground with no pumps running, the air deteriorating rapidly and Germans beginning to dig out a number of tunnels at the same time is about as hellish a picture that you could put any miner/soldier into. Westacott spread his men out so any attack point could be reinforced, and so it became: “a game of cat and mouse-with no second place for the loser.”

Armed with revolvers, grenades and a specially designed dagger with a short blade called a knuckle-knife they waited as the Germans broke through and advanced down the tunnels. Westacott’s account said: “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 broke through in several places and hand to hand combat ensued. This went on in total darkness because to use a torch (flashlight) made you an easy target for a revolver. In this terrifying hell of no light the problem was recognizing friend from foe: “knowing who to kill and who not to”. The solution was as macabre as one can imagine. German troops wore epaulettes on their shoulders, the Canadians did not. So any potential enemy had to be felt before he was stabbed.

Barton wrote: “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.”

By late afternoon Westacott had had his elbow shattered while deflecting a grenade and 60 of the 80 of the Canadians were casualties. It seemed it was only a matter of time and then mercifully the attackers pulled out late in the afternoon. It was not until early the next morning that anyone dared creep from their shafts, only to find a “group of grubby Tommies making tea”. It seems there had been a counter attack that night and the area had been retaken. The surface retaking got huge coverage in newspapers all across the British Empire but as Barton says:” the endeavors of the Canadian tunnellers went unnoticed and unsung. No decorations were received – not even a mention in dispatches – as far as the rest of the world was concerned it had been another trench raid gallantly repulsed by the infantry”.

John Westacott spent a year in hospital and never regained the use of his left arm. His final word on it was: “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!’

Somehow as a coal miner who has worked underground in the Pass mines it is extremely gratifying to know that Canadian men, including the twenty five Pass miners of the 2nd Tunnelling Company, played such an important part in this terrible war.
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September 30th ~ Vol. 85 No. 38
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