To me, my grandfather, Oliver Frank FIELD (always Frank), was a gentle old man with a quiet Somerset burr, his bushy white whiskers stained yellow from the pipe he was never without. Born in 1883 in Lympsham, son of Harry John FIELD and Eliza CRANDON, he worked as a young man for the House family in Brent before moving to live in Cardiff c1911. There he married Flossy GODDARD, originally from Langport. Frank spent his working life as a labourer on the railway and in the building trade.
My father having died long before I started my family history, it was my aunt who told me that Frank had won the Military Medal during WW1. He had gone back into a tunnel to rescue a comrade, carrying the man out on his back. It was my grandmother who had told my aunt the story. Like so many of his generation, Frank would never speak about it.
Frank served with the 178th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers. We believe he initially joined the South Wales Borderers. Many men enlisted with their local regiment and then, because of their mining or construction skills, transferred to the Tunnelling Divisions. In 1916, Frank was awarded his Military Medal, a highly prestigious award for distinguished service in the field, for Warrant Officers, NCOs and lower ranks. The silver medal bears the inscription ‘For Bravery In the Field’. All MM awards were announced in the London Gazette, but sadly with no citations. Frank’s award was published on 21st September 1916.
The action for which the award was made usually having occurred 3-4 months before its publication suggests that Frank’s was connected with the tunnelling which took place prior to the first day of the Somme offensive – 1 July 1916. At a number of locations along the front, explosives were laid underground timed to go off just before the British troops went over the top. And my research has shown that the 178th were in the thick of this battle.
I knew nothing at all about the Tunnellers and so set out to discover all I could about these amazing men, and to try to find details of Frank’s act of bravery. I obtained copies of the War Diaries for the 178th Company for that period. They make harrowing reading. By cross referencing the diaries with books and websites, I began to get a picture of what conditions were like for my grandfather and his comrades. When reading the events of the time one can fully understand his reticence to talk about his experiences.
Tunnelling Companies were formed to dig tunnels under enemy lines, which would then be filled with explosives and detonated and also to provide listening posts to detect enemy activity. Alexander Barrie in his book ‘War Underground’ writes “Tunnellers were hardy, uncomplicated men of action, not much given to paperwork. Records of exactly what they did and where they did it are scarce, incomplete and – it must be admitted – sometimes inexact.” Recruits were often men of mature years - Frank was 33 in 1916. By then, the Army had around 25,000 Tunnellers, mostly volunteers.
Captain Robert Mackilligan of the 178th wrote, “Mining was like a game of chess: one had to anticipate the opponent’s moves. If one made a false move one was usually for it.” Detection and breakthrough into the tunnelling systems of the enemy often occurred and hand-to-hand fighting in the dark with picks, shovels and wood took place. Although all Tunnellers were trained to use rifles, the restricted space (sometimes only 3 ft wide) often meant they could not be used. Tunnels could be as deep as 100 feet and accessed by ladder or, in some cases, merely by rope. Tunnellers worked long hours and, as well as the obvious mining dangers, were prone to trench foot and fatigue, creating a high mortality rate. In the last five months of 1915, more than 300 men of the 178th Tunnelling Company died.
In May 1916, the 178th were in the village of Meaulte, near the Somme. They were working in the Fricourt sector, a bitterly fought over area of ground. The entry in the diary for May 1st reads, “Much damage to our trenches and mine heads by bombardment of 30.4.16. Casualties:- Lieut H.A Judd, gassed by enemy shell. 5 OR gassed wounded (Sgt CORBETT, Spr MARKEY, QUINLAN, L.C. TOOMEY, Spr HILL).
Reading the diaries, a day seldom passes without the mention of casualties of gas. Gases such as carbon monoxide, given off as a result of explosions, could ignite, poison or asphyxiate. If gas was present in large quantities, a Tunneller could be unconscious in a matter of minutes. Giddiness, shortness of breath, palpitations and confusion were followed by loss of power to limbs and any exertion then led to unconsciousness.
Mining in the Fricourt area was through solid chalk which had its own hazards. It could be noisy and, despite the fact that the men worked in silence, each side had to accept the fact that the other may hear them coming. But above all, there were much increased risks of carbon monoxide poisoning. The gas would remain in cracks in the chalk, seeping slowly and continuously into workings. The constant collapsing and re-opening of the tunnels broke the chalk into fine particles. As these mixed with water seeping down from the shell craters above, a stiff, glutinous liquid resulted. When Sappers were killed underground their bodies were pulverized by explosions. Captain Mackilligan wrote “The water oozing into the tunnels became discoloured with blood, and after a time the whole area became repulsive with the sickening stench of decomposing bodies.” The ooze made the rescue of trapped men dangerous and slow.
On May 6th 1916, the following orders and instructions were given to the CO of the 178th. "The work of rescuing gassed and entombed miners is entirely that of the Officer of the 178th Tunnelling Company on duty at the time. This Officer is responsible that rescue parties are organised. The desire of all ranks to go to the assistance of miners is fully appreciated but at the same time it must be borne in mind that the number of men trained in artificial respiration is limited, that all men who descend shafts without apparatus are bound to suffer more or less from the effects of gas and to require treatment."
June 1916 saw mining reach its peak along the frontlines with 101 mines exploded by the British Army in a single month. Allied to the danger from explosions, heavy sustained bombardment was an additional hazard for the 178th Sappers as they scrambled to and fro between the mines and their billets at Meaulte. Working parties carrying away heavy bags of chalk for disposal had an even worse time of it, shells and bullets resulting in heavy casualties.
One rescue story in Barrie’s book tells of an attempt to save some men of the 178th trapped by an explosion. Usually death occurred instantly, but this time tapping could be heard. Capt. MacKILLIGAN ordered a hole to be pushed quickly towards the trapped men. The rescue team took it in turns to wriggle forward making the hole. The men could be seen and so MacKILLIGAN himself moved towards them. But the hole began to close in around him and he knew he would not reach them. He began to fight his way back. Barrie says “Already he had delayed too long and movement was difficult. Fortunately a miner had come gallantly up behind him and helped now by hauling at his feet.”
On 1 June 1916, eight Sappers of the 178th were killed in a German mine blow and the rescue attempt involved many men. The names of the fallen are recorded in the diary and the entry for 2nd June reads, “Work of rescuing entombed miners proceeding with difficulty. Only one still alive.” It records that Lt. Jones was awarded the Military Cross and LCs HOUGHTON and PENMAN the Military Medal for the rescue attempt. No mention is made of other ranks who may have been involved.
One story from the 178th Company for July 1st makes amazing reading. Suspecting that the enemy was working near their own gallery, a counter charge was prepared. To make the Germans think they were still digging, a hammer was tied to the end of a long rope and hung over a bar in the roof. One man kept pulling the rope banging the hammer against the wall. The CO took off his cap, knelt down and said, “Please God help the poor devils down there” before pressing the plunger (‘First Day on the Somme’ by Martin Middlebrook)
The plan for July 1st 1916 was to detonate ten mines. The 178th were responsible for three, placed in readiness under the German lines due west of Fricourt. The diary entry reads “1/7/16 “Z”Day. Mines in G3E, G19A exploded at 7:28 a.m. 2 minutes before Zero. G15b not successful” On that morning, allied guns poured 250,000 shells into the German lines in just one hour. It is said the explosions could be heard in London. It was the start of the bloodiest, most frightful single battle Britain has ever fought with just a few square miles of territory being won.
Any one of these stories could have been Frank’s. He would certainly have witnessed or been aware of them all. I won’t give up trying to discover his personal story but whatever my Grampa Field may have done, the fact that he served in such horrendous conditions during those terrible months is for me, evidence enough of ‘Bravery in the Field’.
‘Beneath Flanders Field’ - Peter Barton, Peter Doyle and Johan Vandewalle
‘The War Underground’ - Alexander Barrie
‘First Day on the Somme’ - Martin Middlebrook
The Tunnellers Memorial website - http://www.tunnellersmemorial.com
The Tunnellers Memorial at Givenchy