On the Western Front

New Zealand Tunnellers on the Western Front
Newspapers of the Day
The tunnellers pick up the story: personal accounts

New Zealand Tunnellers on the Western Front

The story of the World War One New Zealand Tunnelling Company, of those who served, their experiences overseas, and their return home is not well-known.

In September 1914, just one month after Britain declared war on Germany, Mr James Thorpe, a New Zealand Public Works engineer wrote to the NZ Under Secretary for Public Works. Thorpe was a Boer War soldier and a man credited with being enthusiastic and progressive with ideas. He offered to raise a battalion recruited from the Public Works, ‘Maintenance men not so well adapted for field operations, but survey and construction is their element’. Thorpe’s idea was a little before its time and there was no precedent, so the idea was rejected.

By late autumn of 1914 the war on the Western Front had reached a stalemate. Significant innovations in weaponry and the failure of conventional tactics, coupled with heavy casualties and a shortage of ammunition left both sides with no option but to consolidate their positions and settle into a static entrenched style of warfare.

But, a year later a ‘new’ form of warfare, yet one that had its roots as far back as medieval times had emerged. The Allies would be required to respond in kind. Both sides dug in, then the Germans started to dig underground towards the enemy.

In September 1915 the Imperial Government requested the New Zealand Government raise an Engineer Tunnelling Company of three or four hundred men. They would form one of 25 British and seven Dominion Tunnelling Companies, totally 25,000 men that would serve in France by late 1916. The officers selected for commissions in the Tunnelling Companies were, generally speaking, mining engineers of wide experience, recruited from all parts of the world.

The NZ Defence Minister is reported as saying that the NZ Government had informed the Army Council early in the war that it would be glad to give any assistance in any direction that might be indicated. The request for the formation of a miners’ company was one reply to that offer. It was proposed to obtain the company from the miners of the country and from men experienced in tunnelling works in connection with the Public Works Department.

James Thorpe’s idea of a specialist group of men deployed to war had come about. He must have followed news of the announcement with much interest.

James (Jim) Thorpe, Boer War veteran, First Contingent, No 1 Company, Serial Number 29. The man credited with the idea of a WW1 specialist corps would not see the Tunnellers’ unit return. The Armistice was announced on 11 November 1918. Thorpe died just a few days later in Katikati on 19 November, during the ’flu epidemic.

Newspapers of the Day
The miners of Reefton are gradually being depleted of the young and energetic youth, and every day sees two or three enlist. Reefton is feeling the pinch and the want of men to man the mines will soon be a serious question. Anyhow, the boys of Quartzopolis are determined that if underground tunnelling will be the means of bringing about the fall of Constantinople, they will be there to a man.

Last night forty men who have volunteered for the Tunnelling Regiment were farewelled at the Drill Shed. The Mayor, on behalf of the citizens, thanked the men for the prompt response that they had made to the call for men. He was certain that they would do valuable work, and he wished them all a safe return. The men leave this morning under the charge of Sergeant-Major Levy, and will go into camp at Avondale Camp, Auckland.

Grey River Argus, 7 October 1915, Page 4

A large crowd gathered at the railway station this morning to bid farewell to the men who left to go into camp at Auckland with the Tunnelling Corps.

The full quota, consisting of ninety-two men, paraded on the platform, and were addressed by Colonel Porritt, Officer Commanding the 6th (Hauraki) Regiment. In the course of his speech the Colonel said he was pleased to address such brave men, who he knew would do all in their power to uphold the honour of the 6th (Hauraki) Regiment.

The Rev. Monsignor Hackett also briefly addressed the men, and appealed to them to keep foremost in their minds the motto of the 6th (Hauraki) Regiment —"Whaka tangata, Kia Kaha," which translated means, "Acquit yourselves like men be strong."

Major Browne and Quartermaster- Sergeant Dean left with the men for Auckland. The train moved out to the accompaniment of ringing cheers by the crowd.

Ohinemuri Gazette, Volume XXVI, Issue 3442, 6 October 1915, Page 3
A farewell was tendered to Mr F. McClymont on Friday last by a few of his Karangahake friends. The function took place at the residence of Mr E. Jury, who graciously placed the resources of his establishment at the service of the entertainers.

Mr E. Patton occupied the chair, and after the usual loyal toasts had been duly observed, in a neat speech bade farewell to the guest, wishing him all sorts of good luck, and a safe return to Karangahake.

A presentation of a dressing bag was made during the evening, from his friends at the Talisman battery, and a silver cigarette case from his nephew, Master Valentine Jury. A lengthy toast list interspersed with songs, recitations, and musical items, contributed to an all too short evening's enjoyment. The toast of "The Ladies," coupled with the names of Messrs Dickson and Johnston, was ably and humorously replied to by 'those gentlemen'

The following vocal items were given "Your King and Country Need You," Mr F. Marsh The Death of Nelson," Mr Phil. Griffin "My Pretty Jane." Mr E. Jury; “Shamrock, Rose, and Thistle,” the chairman; “Then They Talked About the War," Mr Lou Mason; "The Heart Bowed Down," Mr Geo. Dickson: "The Deathless Army," Mr Frank Brown; coon song with banjo accompaniment Mr Frank Moran.

Mr C. E. Lloyd gave “He Tangata Whakahihi," one of his inimitable Maori-Pakeha dialogues, and Messrs Tucker and Tennent two recitations, "Gunga Dheen" and, "The Field of Waterloo." Mr Jury accompanied the vocal items on the piano. After a hearty vote of thanks to the host and hostess, the meeting broke up with the singing of Auld Lang Syne.

Mr McClymont has resided in Karangahake nearly all his life. He is a noted athlete and well-known on the football field. His brother is the celebrated League player. He leaves with the Tunnelling Corps, being transferred to it from the infantry. He takes with him the good wishes of all the residents of Karangahake.

Ohinemuri Gazette, Volume XXVI, Issue 3444, 11 October 1915, Page 3

His Excellency the Governor greatly pleased the Tunnelling Corps with a speech he delivered to them. He spoke to the men in a genial, free, and easy manner. "It was a pretty big push for me to get here to see you fellows before you go away," said His Excellency. "New Zealand soldiers have gained a very high reputation. Without making invidious distinctions, I may say they can worthily take their places beside any soldiers in the British Army. You have already shown yourselves a good lot of men, and I hope you will maintain your fine reputation throughout your period of service. Lady Liverpool has asked me to bid you good-bye on her behalf. She has sent a gramophone, which she hopes will help to while away some of your leisure hours at sea." His Excellency wished Major Duigan, officers, and men the best of good luck, and expressed the hope that their transport would encounter no submarines.

Evening Post, Volume XC, Issue 147, 18 December 1915, Page 5
The tunnellers pick up the story: personal accounts
4/1562 Sapper Colin (Mick) Adams, single
It was a great day in Auckland. There was a terrible crowd of people in Queen St and I saw a lot I knew from around Kghake (Karangahake – Ed). I was talking to Alf Nelson on the wharf and I gave him a button off my coat as he wanted to share something as a keep sake. We were all disappointed after we had got the farewell from the Hall and marched to the boat because they said they would let us on the wharf for half an hour to say good by to our friends but instead of that they marched us up the gang way and never let us on the wharf again. Then they let friends in for about half an hour before the public came but it was not very nice shouting out from the boat on to the wharf to any one you knew. You could not imagine the crowds that was on the wharf for about two hours before we sailed. I saw a terrible lot I knew as it was half holiday that day being a Saturday in Town. There was a lot of crying and wailing going on I tell you and it was very sad to see some of the women crying as this crowd are nearly all married men. Mrs Capill was there and Tom Pennells Mrs, Vider Hill , Mrs McClymont and hundred more I knew from down there and they were all pretty seedy looking when the tug boat came around the corner to take us out. I can tell you mum I was not feeling to good on it my self but they say that’s its all in the game for us. I said good by to neatly all of them the best way I could from the boat a it was not very pleasant to be right up on the boat and about 600 men all on one side singing out good bys but I done my best and I hope I will see them all again some time….

Sapper Colin Adams. The Tunnelling Company Unit Diary 19 April 1917 would report, ‘Showery. Road work well in hand. Enemy shelled road. We lost one (Fahey) killed and one wounded (Adams)’. Sapper Adams died of wounds on 23 April.

4/1369 Lance Corporal Frederick (Scotty) George McClymont Single, one child.
Lance-Corporal Frederick George McClymont was awarded the Military Medal. With two comrades, McClymont had approached a fallen enemy aeroplane when a shell burst close beside them, killing one and desperately wounding the other. Despite his mortal wounds, McClymont dragged himself along the road until he could send assistance to his comrade. Corporal McClymont was one of eleven Tunnelling Company men to win the Military Medal.
4/1565 Sapper John Eugene Cullen, Auckland, married, writing aboard the S.S. Ruapehu, from the Bay of Biscay. Feb 2 1916 (abridged)

I am writing this in the submarine area, so far we have got through without being ‘branded’, and all are hoping that we may get into port safely. When I last wrote we were at Dakar, a fortified port on the west coast of Africa, where we coaled and watered and took on a nine-men gun and naval crew for protection against submarines…

After spending the day there ( Senengambia-Ed) we proceeded on our journey, and nothing eventful happened since, excepting the fact that one of the Elder-Dempster liners which left Dakar has not since been heard of. She left only two days before us, and it is thought that she was sent to her doom by two enemy submarines now known to have been waiting around the canary Islands and Teneriffe. It is surmised they were waiting round for us, and that they thought the unfortunate vessel was the Ruapehu. Our vessel did not call at Teneriffe, as it has done on previous occasions, so we were lucky in fooling them through going a long way out on our course…

But the trip has been grand and our luck has been so good that we are trusting with God’s good guidance to pull through with a bit to spare. The guard has trebled since entering the danger zone, and sappers are to be seen everywhere and at all hours straining their eyes and stretching their necks doing their best to discover any stray torpedoes wandering our way. Fifty of our best marksmen are on hand with loaded rifles to knock any visible periscope kite high should they venture their peep-hole above high water.

The words in a song composed by Sergeant Charles Stuart Parnell (NZ Tun Coy) were written by Sapper J.E. Cullen. The song, with a rousing chorus, was first heard at an Anzac tea given by Mrs Fink at York House, Kensington. The singer was Sergeant Pollard (NZEF).
Corporal A. J. Pilkington, ASC, who was reported as having gone to France with the NZETC, picks up the story…
Although it is only a little over three months since I said good-bye on the Queen Street wharf, it seems an age. We were seven weeks on the water, reaching Southampton on February 4. The voyage was an exceptionally calm one, so calm that a fishing boat would have had no difficulty in doing the trip. They say we were very lucky in dodging disaster, as the Moewe, a boat that sank several vessels, was only the matter of 50 miles away from us at one particular point….

At any rate we reached England all right. It must have been the number of Bibles on board that kept us afloat.

As soon as we landed we entrained for Falmouth, landing there about 3.30 in the afternoon. The people of the town had arranged a spread, which was much appreciated, seeing that we had had nothing to eat since 5 a.m. It commenced to rain heavily, and after the meal we marched to our quarters. Of course we got drenched, and as our kit bags were not available we were obliged to keep our wet things on. We were stationed in that God forsaken hole for a month, and I believe it rained every day, and when it didn’t rain it snowed…

In France (Ed)
We disembarked by 7, had our wagons off by 1 pm, went to our camp, put in the night there, and moved off for the front…

4/1632 Lance-Corporal John (Jack) Richard Norris. 8 March, Wed –Ash Wednesday
Drew our equipment and rifle prior to going to France in the evening we had a route march around Falmouth motor Lorrys and Despatch riders left in the night for Southampton our Company left same night arrived at Southampton in the following morning after a rough ride in the train people in several towns met us even in the middle of the night and gave us tea and cakes to eat and it was very acceptable for it was a bitter cold night snowing very hard after a lot of manouvering about we scrambled aboard the ship Inventor and left for France at dusk we arrived at Le Havre about midnight the Destroyers left us in harbour After a lot of turning and twisting around at Le Havre we moved off to camp had a few hours spell an a bit to eat and it was freezing cold and snowing at eight oclock 30 of us moved off from Le Havre for Rouen and the French trains are awful slow after a very cold night we arrived at Rouen this morning…

Lance-Corporal Jack NORRIS was awarded a DCM His citation reads; “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He displayed the great coolness and courage when he and his party were entombed in a gallery. There was a great risk of the workings being discovered, but he succeeded in getting his party dug out undetected.”

On the Western Front

Corporal A. J. Pilkington, ASC, NZETC.
We disembarked by 7, had our waggons off by 1 p.m., went to our camp, put in the night there, and moved off for the front. The waggons, taking the road again, travelled about 150 miles through some of the loveliest country imaginable, every inch being under cultivation, and this extends right up to the firing line. There is one thing you do not see in France, and that is a man of military age in civilian dress. All the agricultural Avork is carried on by women and boys, and it's absolutely marvellous how these women can work. I've seen them doing all classes of manual labour, shovelling manure, ploughing, and driving horses in the street, in fact, everything a man can do. France is a wonderful country. We started for the front, and we landed all right, and had only got nicely settled when the Germans started sending us souvenirs in the shape of six-inch shells, but our luck stuck to us, and nobody was hurt. Some of our chaps had just finished digging a latrine, and had everything 0.K., and were "What oh"—a shell struck the object of their admiration and blew it up. Some of them have had attacks of illness ever since. I had just turned my car round, put her into position, and a shell blew a wall down that I had only passed a moment before. We were about five miles from the German trenches at that time, but we shifted camp, and are now only about three miles off, our trench only being separated from theirs by from 25 to 40 yards. There is always something doing, and one never knows when he is going to catch it, but these things are only a third consideration. Your belly comes first, then your bed, and nothing else seems to trouble you. I am not allowed to tell you too much, and cannot mention names of any towns, but can tell you that this quarter has been well shook up, and was once occupied by the enemy. The place is a mass of ruins, hardly a building being untouched, and there are as many rats as soldiers here, and plenty of graves. The French seem to have lost a lot of men in this quarter.

Norris Diary 8th April 1916
It is now five weeks since we left our unit and we are glad to be leaving Rouen today to rejoin our other mates in the trenches.

After two days by rail by motor car and by foot we rejoin our mates in action at Arras things are very busy here in mining operations the day after we landed here I was sent in charge of 4 men to clean out an old French mine in the “J’ Sector judging by this mine the French sappers do some splendid work but very slow it is only about 20 ft under the surface and runs 800 ft out right under the German first and second line of trenches we all take our mines about 100 or 140 feet below the surface even further than that if necessary our O.C. reckons on getting down on the water level if possible so as the Germans cannot get underneath us and it has proved a good idea for the enemy has blown 19 mines and has not damaged one of our mines or caught any of our men.

Waihi’s Lance-Corporal Jack NORRIS was awarded a DCM. His citation reads; “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He displayed the great coolness and courage when he and his party were entombed in a gallery. There was a great risk of the workings being discovered, but he succeeded in getting his party dug out undetected.”

New Zealand Engineering and Tunnelling Company letter home. May Ist 1916, Front Trenches, Northern France
It is a perfect May-day to-day —still and sunny and warm. I am writing at a big open window overlooking a garden that has made wonderful progress in the last week. The pear trees are all in their transparent new green leaves, and have set their fruit. There is a big cherry tree in full blaze of blossom, and further back against the dark green ivy wall are two big lilacs, one white and the other purple, covered in blossom. I can smell them from here. The lily of the valley bed is almost out and there are patches of blue hyacinths, and spots of big flaming tulips amongst the grass and rubbish under the trees.' The guns seem, to be having a May-day time, too, just now, and it is very peaceful. What an extraordinary kind of warfare this is…

Our work goes on all the time well below ground, and unless the Bosche starts to strafe our dumps, and so interfere with the work of the fatigue parties emptying our spoil, does not interfere with us. My work takes me about the trenches and advance posts good deal, so I see most of the fun that is going on. The Bosche let off some mines not far from here the other morning about 2 a.m., and came over into the craters, from which he was promptly ejected again. I have a fine distant view of the proceedings, they made a tremendous row and the flashes and flares made the whole show look like an energetic thunderstorm. We are rather expecting something of the sort round this way before long. I have been out in the billets for the last three days, and am going back in the trenches this afternoon for a three or four days' spell. I rather hope that things will liven up while I am in—it would make one feel one were really in a war—at present it is as someone said: "An uncomfortable picnic with, an occasional unpleasantness." I wish they would stir up things and finish it.

Hauraki Goldfields Lieutenant Leslie May was married in November 1915, just over a month before embarking overseas. By October 1916 he had already suffered three doses of gas poisoning and shell concussion. May wrote to his sister explaining how he filled in a typical Sunday afternoon.
‘There is always one picture of the trenches which comes to my mind. Picture three of us sitting in an untimbered dug-out with six feet of clay head-cover and a most intense bombardment going on with as many as three shells a second landing. Each moment we expect to be our last; the roof was falling in, the walls tottering and pieces of steel were flying around and the air was full of noise and acrid smoke. We had found some old French night lights and were industriously slitting them open and tipping the propelling charge into a small heap, so that we could determine whether the explosive fired by heat or detonation. When we had enough we put a match on the heap. It fired by heat, and one of us lost our eyebrows. After a second verifying experiment the bombardment slackened, so we crawled out of the small opening not quite filled with debris. The trenches that had been around us were blown quite flat, and we had quite an interesting time dodging snipers as we crawled around exposed places.’

With a major Allied push planned for April 1917 NZ Tunnellers began work to connect and open up the underground quarries to make the system suitable to house troops, so that when the day for the attack came the men would issue from them safe, warm and dry and utterly unsuspected by the enemy.