When the war started Norton Griffiths’ firm was working for Manchester Corporation, digging tunnels for a drainage system. The soil they were tunnelling through lent itself to a technique called ‘clay kicking’ or ‘working on the cross’, whereby the digger used a wooden frame (known as a cross), which allowed him to lay back with his feet facing the workface. He would use both his feet to ‘push’ his spade into the soil, remove a chunk of it, and pass it over his head to another member of the team for disposal. The men referred to themselves as Moles.
Based on ‘Tunnellers : the story of the Tunnelling Companies’ 1936 by W. Grant Grieve and Bernard Newman
John Norton Griffiths
No doubt Norton Griffiths had heard about the German mines, and the difficulty British soldiers were experiencing in trying to mine the soft wet soil of Flanders, and in December he decided that the men digging the Manchester sewers, his ‘Moles’, might be able to help the war effort. In soft sandy clay soils they would be able to dig very quickly and undermine enemy positions. So on 15 December 1914 he wrote to the War Office offering to take a group of ‘Moles’ over to France to see if the soil was indeed right for the clay kickers. His letter was duly acknowledged and filed under ‘Moles’.
As previously stated, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Rawlinson wanted to form dedicated mining battalions but was overruled by Sir John French, who simply ordered the RE to carry out retaliatory mining. Despite the fact that the RE did not have sufficient trained manpower, nevertheless, in early January 1915 the 20th Fortress Company RE made an attempt to sink a mine shaft at Rue du Bois near Armentières, but without success. The shaft constantly filled with water faster than their out of date pumps could clear it. One day, with perhaps an uncharacteristic sense of humour, a board appeared above the German lines with, written in perfect English, the slogan ‘It can’t be done. We’ve tried’. The mining attempt was abandoned.
Then on 25 January and again on 3 February 1915 more German mines were exploded under British lines, giving great urgency to the need for robust counter measures. Finally on 12 February 1915 Norton Griffiths’ letter had the desired effect and he was summoned to the War Office to see Lord Kitchener. In a typical flamboyant, extrovert manner he took a shovel from His Lordship’s grate, laid on his back and gave a remarkable demonstration of the clay kicking technique. Lord Kitchener was impressed and demanded 10,000 clay kickers immediately! This response took Norton Griffiths completely by surprise, and he said he didn’t think there were 10,000 in the whole country, and he would need to go to France to be absolutely sure that the soil was indeed right for the clay kicking technique.
Nothing daunted Norton Griffiths or slowed him down, so on the same evening he was on a boat to France to ensure the soil was indeed suitable for his ‘Moles’. The next day he met the Engineer-in-Chief Brigadier-General George Henry Fowke, and his team. He got on well with them all, and again laid on the floor to demonstrate clay kicking. By the end of the day he had convinced everyone, and approval in principle had been given to form eight specialist tunnelling units. Norton Griffiths was to act as a liaison officer for the newly set up tunnelling companies, and in keeping with his flamboyant ways he travelled around France and Flanders in his Rolls Royce, always driven at break neck speed by his chauffeur.
Initially each unit was to comprise six officers and 227 men, consisting of a headquarters and four sections, but this revised from time to time. Initially all commanding officers were to be RE regulars but this requirement was soon dropped. Junior officers were to be mining or civil engineers. In addition to the tunnelling Sappers, large numbers of infantry were ‘loaned’ as labourers to carry spoil away or bring up mining supplies such as timber for lining the tunnels or explosives.
The tunnellers were a motley bunch, officially soldiers but not very soldier like, signed up straight from civilian jobs, coal, tin and slate mining, from all over the country. They had little or no military training, some over 60 years old, and they were paid vastly more than the average infantry man, six shillings per day as opposed to the usual sapper’s pay of two shillings and six pence. The six shilling rate should have only been paid to the most experienced clay kicking miners but somehow less experienced miners were paid the higher rate, and arguments over pay differences continued until the end of the war.
1915 was a year of growth and change for the tunnelling companies. They had started from scratch and everyone was ‘learning on the job’. It became apparent that a more coordinated approach to mining was needed to ensure that all tunnels achieved the best tactical advantage. Previously Staff Officers with little or no knowledge of mining tactics had ordered tunnelling that had resulted in wasted effort. To coordinate future mining work and thus avoid wasted effort, on 1 January 1916 a new staff post of ‘Inspector of Mines’ was authorised, and filled by Colonel Harvey. Each Army Headquarters was to have a ‘Controller of Mines’ who were directly responsible to Colonel Harvey. One of the first actions of the new administration was to set up Army Mining Schools.Despite all the difficulties, by the end of June 1916 there were 25 British, three Canadian, three Australian and one New Zealand tunnelling companies had been raised, at their peak employing some 25,000 men.