I was driving a heading at Rosyth Naval Base when war broke out and I enlisted. Six months later I was in the Royal Artillery fighting like a mad fool in France.
In 1915 Patrick MacGill was with the London Irish in the 47th Division, 4th Army Corps. In Septemberember his battalion led the attack on Loos, walking in lightly tailing rain over ground soggy as a sponge, walking in a line which wavered only where a few of them kicked a football across No-man's land. MacGill stepped out between the poles of a stretcher which tensed and pulled in his hands until the back end dropped and trailed, bumping. Ahead reared the black crucifix in Loos graveyard. Bits of men littered the mud. A naked man, his clothes blown away, ran laughing in a circle until he was shot in the head. The dead lay heaped by the enemy wires, the football punctured and crumpled. Eventually they ringed all Loos in a new front line: broken church, broken streets, and the twisted ironwork of the pithead winding gear which they called the Twin Towers. They ate well off rations looted from the dead.
One night MacGill left the dug-out to get a bottle of iodine from the RAMC post in Loos: a black night, the blacker outline of the broken buildings silhouetted against a black sky. On the way he met two soldiers burying corpses. A dog had been scavenging off human meat.
'He's Old Nick in disguise,' said one. 'He feeds off the dead, the dirty swine.'
A starshell suddenly lit the graveyard where gunfire had blown out and scattered the villagers' white bones. The dog, stark in the sudden light, skulked away into the dark.
He drank rum with Mac, the Scottish orderly. 'Not bad, a wee drappie,' said Mac. 'It's health to the navel and marrow to the [214/215] bones.' Outside, high-explosive shells burst about the Twin Towers. Long-nosed bullets snapped about what was left of the houses. A bullet stung MacGill's wrist. It hurt. Blood dripped black from his fingers but it took him back to Blighty, for a while. It was an army, he said, that would be remembered for its soldiers. Talk of Waterloo and Englishmen would always think of Wellington. Talk of Loos and they'd remember a million men in puttees.
Navvies joined in droves. Whole jobs were abandoned because of a navvy shortage. Snowy, Big Ned, Slasher, Scan, Young Clipper and Yorkie joined the Sportsman's Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers in a body from the Derwent valley dams. Harley Wright joined the Dorset Regiment with his pet cat which was expected to become the battalion mascot. Navvy Smashing Bristol joined the Transport Lorry Department from the Cardiff dams. William Lyons (Cambridge Lion's son) joined the Royal Navy and died in HMS Aboukir. Young Potsey, known to the Army as Sgt Clarke MM, joined one of the Royal Engineers' Tunnelling Companies. A 58-year old navvy from Scott and Middleton's London contract who joined to encourage younger men was sent to guard POWs in Malta. A Cwm Taff man had twenty other navvies in his Company. In Birmingham, Navvy Smith said a thousand men out of eleven hundred had joined by March 1915. Many, he said, went into the 30th Railway Battalion.
'All our family are out at the Front at different places: brothers, brother-in-law, and nephews — nine all told,' wrote L/Cpl Fiddler Jack, late of Bungalow City, Rosyth Naval Base, to Mrs Garnett in 1915.
Well, dear madam,' he went on, 'I wish you could send me out the shaving set that was mentioned in last quarter's Letter, it would come in very handy, as there are several old navvies in this Camp where I am; and could you beg an old accordion to pass away the evenings when we are out of the firing line? We get it a bit hot there at times, and when we come back to camp it is nothing only banging of big guns.' (He got his accordion. It was champion.)
'It's up to the waist in water and mud in the trenches,' another navvy wrote home, 'but that does not bother me a bit, as I have been used to that all my life.' 'We are still having very bad weather,' wrote another, 'and our trenches are in a terrible state, and we all look like navvies instead of soldiers. I, myself, am just like a lump of mud, burl of ten feel proud to know that I am an old navvy's son, because I know that there is [215/216] not another class who have answered the call to the flag to fight for home and beauty as our navvies have done.'
'I was pleased with the parcel you sent me and my mates shared the underclothing and the twist the best way I could,' another thanked Mrs Garnett. 'My mates told me you can send some more any time. We are back from the trenches having a bit of a rest till we get strong again. We talk about working in a tunnel blasting, but that is nothing to the big guns firing all day and night over our heads, the noise is awful.' (Horizon to horizon, night was ablaze with gun-light as the guns stood firing wheel to wheel along the Western Front.)
'I have seen some rough times in England and Wales, I was at the Dock Disaster, Newport, Mon, 2nd July, 1909,' wrote another navvy, 'but I have seen worse than that since I have been out here. People in England may read the papers while the print drops off, but they will never realise what we have gone through and stuck it out.'
'Dear Madam, I am at present in hospital and I should be very pleased if you could send me a little tobacco, or put me in touch with some friend who could oblige me. It is a bit hard on us when we are in hospital, as they stop your pay until you rejoin your regiment,' wrote an old gangerman, late of the Newport widening. 'I should be pleased if you would send me the Quarterly Letter also, as I should like to know how things are going off on the Public Works. Hoping you will excuse me writing you and you will oblige an old warrior, as I have not got many friends.'
'There's nothing like being a free man,' said a navvy on the North Sea Patrols. 'I'm more for roaming the country than being fastened to one job, any how, I shall stick it like a brick as long as it's for the King and Country.'
'Well, dear Mrs Garnett,' wrote home another old navvy, 'I'm going to tell you there were thirteen of us listed together, but only twelve of us came to the Front. Half was in the Dardenelles, one poor lad "went west" as we call it, but on our side we have only had two wounded out of our little band. Five of us are navvies, we keep jogging on along together and make the best of things, but we get no [216/217] tramps out here for the shilling. I have seen some of our Navvies' Battalion some time ago, but none that I know.'
In the Crimea the Army Works Corps had saddened the military. In the Sudan navvies did nothing to gladden the Royal Engineers. Since then the army had used local labour or its own infantry. Now however the whole of one corner of France was churned up like a huge public works site, railwayed, quarried, trenched and tunnel-led. Early in 1915 the War Office began recruiting specialist labour units to handle the civil engineering work it needed to protect and supply its forward troops. Officially they were Labour Battalions, Service Battalions, or Pioneer Battalions. Mrs Garnett called them, incorrectly, Trench-Digging Battalions. Everybody else just as incorrectly called them Navvy Battalions. In its March 1915, issue the Navvies Letter told its readers about the labour battalions in infantry regiments. 'To get together men of our class,' said Mrs Garnett proudly. You signed on like any other soldier for three years or the duration. You were paid like an infantryman, plus two-pence a day. Already the 18th Middlesex were mustering at Alexandra Park race track.
Some labour battalions had no navvies at all. The 19th Cheshires, its historian says, was made up of miners, novelists, cotton spinners, factory hands, farmers and music hall artistes. Between them they won five Military Medals and the Distinguished Conduct Medal repairing railway lines under fire, but still had to put up with jibes about being conscientious objectors ('do you fight with bananas?') Among Mametz Wood's shell-stripped trees they trenched down through layers of decomposing Germans buried in shallow graves. They seemed happy enough, however. Their two music hall turns (Silaborn and Rooney) wrote and acted in sketches in their own Nissen-hutted Hippodrome. For two years the battalion lived under fire around the ruins of Ypres and the wilderness of the Somme, cheerfully, ironically, whistling their theme tune:
'Oh, it's a lovely war.'
But other labour battalions, though far from being exclusively navvy-manned, did have a lot of middle-aged and even elderly navvies serving in them. (A Labour unit once played football against an infantry regiment. Neither side had proper strip, but none was needed - all the navvies were grey-haired.) All were over forty; most, over fifty; some, over sixty.
They built and ran railways and dug communication trenches like endless lines of linked graves zig-zagging and gaping across France. [217/218] They made and mended roads and filled in craters in the weird landscape (less strange to navvies, perhaps, than most). Convoluting wire, fish-hooked to Crich the floundering dying and the dead; sandbags among fractured roots; trees like barked logs; gas-masked horses hock deep in muck; heaped empty rum-jars and spent shell cases; hump-backed elephant shelters on plains like steppes; shell-fall, earth-burst: through it all the old navvies, stoop-backed, shovelled away.
'Lord Kitchener himself,' said the Staffordshire Sentinel, 'obtained John Ward's appointment as Colonel, and got it confirmed by a Cabinet Minute, when some officers of the Regular Army opposed the appointment. Lord Kitchener was Major in General Graham's Expedition, with whom Colonel Ward served as a navvy-soldier in 1885.'
Altogether Ward personally raised four battalions, mainly from among navvies in Staffordshire:
18th (Service) Battalion (1st Public Works Pioneers), Middlesex Regiment.
19th (Service) Battalion (2nd Public Works Pioneers), Middlesex Regiment.
26th (Service) Battalion (3rd Public Works Pioneers), Middlesex Regiment.
25th (Garrison) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment.
The 18th were allocated to 33 Division, on the Somme. Just after midsummer's day, 1916 (the landscape white as winter with shell-blown chalk), the Germans obliterated part of the Division's front line near La Bassee Canal. German soldiers occupied the crater and navvies from the 18th were sent to oppose them until the infantry could be got ready. Nine old navvies were killed, nineteen wounded.
During the Battle of the Somme itself the battalion followed the Royal Welch Fusiliers into the assault on High Wood. (It was more like an overploughed field than a forest, shell-stripped bare as it was to a few lacerated poles, feathery with shredded bark.) The land rose slightly and the 18th were set to digging a communication trench back from the old woods to the low ground. They began just before dawn, delayed since midnight by a barrage, and worked till the older men dropped. 'They worked as though they were opening Piccadilly,' said an officer, 'and took as little notice of German shellfire as they would [218/219] have done of the London traffic.'
The 19th Battalion went to 41 Division. In Septemberember 1915, they were in the Battle of Flers-Caucelette, repairing roads and cable trenches on the dry plain. They were at Ypres. In 1918 they were used as infantry on the Somme before following the Army into Germany. (Long after the War, Ward's son gave the 19th's Colours to the family solicitor for safekeeping. They were put away in the cellar of the solicitor's offices and forgotten until they were accidentally found again in 1959 and given to the Regimental Museum.)
The 26th joined 27 Division in Salonika, in 1918, straight from training camp. Half were dead of disease and hardship within weeks of leaving England.
Ward himself commanded the 25th Middlesex. He was still an MP, still General Secretary of the Navvies' Union, still Treasurer of the GFTU. In 1915 he spoke at the Federation's Annual Council Meeting in the Temperance Hall, Derby, wearing his uniform with the three pips and two stripes of the half-colonel. What was happening in Flanders, he told them, was an inevitable war between societies living by different philosophies: the belief that the will of the strong is all that matters, against the belief in justice and mercy; liberalism against nationalism; Locke, perhaps, against Hegel: the idea that the state serves each bit of humanity, against the idea that people are only bits of the state. 'There are worse things than losing life,' he ended.
Losing one's honour, one's sense of decency or self-respect, not merely as a man, but as a member of a great race and nation - that shows a moral decay which is worse than physical death a thousand times. But no matter how many Englishmen may die outwardly, spiritually they continue to live, and it's that conviction that has made me don the uniform I wear today.
Early in 1917 he sailed for the Far East in the troopship Tyndareus. East of Cape Town she struck a mine very near the spot off Danger Point where in 1852 the troopship Birkenhead foundered. Ward mustered the battalion on deck.
'This, comrades,' he told them, 'is the hour that we ought to have lived for. Don't forget that you're members of one of the most famous regiments in the British Army. We will try to save you, but if we can't, let's agree to finish like English gentlemen.'
But they didn't finish like English gentlemen, not off the Cape. Their ship's bulkheads held until they were towed into Simon's Town harbour where they re-embarked for Hong Kong and more [219/220] strange adventures. Not long after the regiment landed in China, to begin with, a case of slave-stealing came before the local court. A little girl, recently sold as a slave, had been stolen from her new owner. Ward was astounded. Slavery? In a British colony? He wrote from Mount Austin Barracks to William Appleton, Secretary of the GFTU. Slave-owning, Ward was told, was an old Chinese custom which the British had agreed to recognise by Proclamation when they occupied the place. Even if this were true, Ward argued, it must have been a muddle-headed oversight by some Victorian clerk. No Proclamation could abrogate fundamental law.
'I offered my life, like millions of other Englishmen,' Ward wrote to Appleton,
to defend the British State, our State, because I believed that it represented all that is best, so far, in the shape of humane government. That whatever by-products may issue from our Empire over subject races we stand for what is best, brightest, and honourable in the rule of the coloured peoples. That our Empire is a free Empire, where no slave can breathe its air. These are really things worth fighting for.
Appleton spoke to Walter Long, the Colonial Secretary; privately, to keep it out of the newspapers and away from enemy propagandists. Long promised something would be done immediately, but Appleton was still waiting in Colonial Office corridors late into 1920. Eventually, a couple of years later, the GFTU heard the Hong Kong Government was to issue another proclamation telling everybody it was wrong to sell people.
After Russia's abrupt withdrawal from the war in November 1917 Britain and France tried to reopen an Eastern Front of some — of any — kind. Interventionists operated where they could get ashore — the Black Sea, Archangel, the Baltic coasts — except in Siberia. Only Japan was close and uncommitted enough to be able to intervene significantly in Asia but the Japanese refused to move without US approval and US approval was unforthcoming. For one thing President Wilson mistrusted Japanese motives. For another he was doubtful about diverting any effort from the Western Front.
In March 1918, the Bolsheviks let their Czech ex-prisoners of war leave Russia, journeying eastwards, circumambulating the planet, to re-engage the Germans in western Europe. In May, when over forty thousand were beaded out along the Trans-Siberian Railway, Czech troops lynched a Hungarian who threw a cast-iron stove at one of their soldiers near a place called Chelyabinsk on the steppes [220/221] just east of the Urals. Moscow, regretting the decision to let them go (they were, by now, an Allied army crossing country held by counter-revolutionaries) began hindering their movement. Trotsky even ordered local Soviets to stop their trains.
It was this, it seems, which finally convinced President Wilson something must be done. The US agreed to send a small force of around seven thousand men to be matched by as many Japanese. (The Japanese disembarked 72,000 troops, occupied what ground they wanted for themselves and refused to go any farther.) Ward's 2^th Middlesex were the first Allied troops to land at Vladivostock, filing off the steamer Ping Suie in Augustust 1918, solar topped and kitted for the tropics, straight from Hong Kong.
'The Hernia Battalion,' some British officers in Siberia called them. 'Poor old men,' said Captain Howgrave-Graham of the 1st/9th Hampshires, the only other British battalion posted to Siberia, 'they ought never to have been sent here: they were mostly unfit when they came and are absolutely useless now.' They did well, nevertheless, given they were B-i garrison troops graded unfit for active service in a war theatre.
Ward, always a huge man, was now a little huger, thickened around the neck and middle a little, dwarfing his middle-European allies. For its last few hundred miles the Trans-Siberian Railway runs north/south down to Vladivostock, part of the way in the Ussuri valley where the Czechs held off an army of Bolsheviks, Hungarians and Germans. Ward went, with half his battalion and his machine gun section, to help.
Siberia that Augustust was gaudy, the summer sky stained with colour like spilt paint. Purple daybreaks brightened to orange dawns. At times on the Ussuri bullets were thick as mosquitoes but the real mosquitoes, big as spiders, did more damage. Ward took command of the tiny Allied Front but on orders from Vladivostock was not allowed to advance. He watched the enemy openly outflanking him across the river.
But his stint as sole commander of his own little war didn't last long, since he was given to the Japanese 12th Division as soon as it reached the battlefront. The Japanese Major-General, on the other hand, had no time for a British half-colonel and a British half-battalion. Ward was told to get behind the backs of the Japanese and keep out of the way.
Then early one morning, the Japanese Liaison Officer handed [221/222] him a note: a general offensive was to be launched in just over an hour, four miles away. Politically it was the correct thing to do: the Japanese were duty bound to tell the commander-in-chief of their ally's forces that a major battle was about to begin. Militarily, they thought Ward had no chance of cluttering up a purely Japanese victory by intruding unwanted allied troops into what was to be a purely Japanese affair. On the other hand, they hadn't properly taken into account Ward's blimpish stubbornness. The Czech, Japanese and Cossack troops under his command refused to get out of bed, but in less than half an hour his own battalion was marching up the Trans-Siberian Railway to war. They reached the battlefield half an hour late, but still in time for the fighting: in fact a soldier of the Middlesex Regiment started it prematurely when he accident- ally fired his rifle.
The Allies — a whole Japanese Division and half a British battalion — advanced on a twelve mile front, Ward's men in their own private battlefield in scrub and cornland on either side of the railway track, self-chosen because it was the only space unfilled by Japanese, who thought it too dangerous. Ward stepped out along the middle of the sleepers, directing his troops like a ganger. It was,' he said, 'just ding-dong open fighting, wonderfully spectacular in character.'
Yet in a way they were also curiously detached from the battle, prodding at it from the outside, never really being let in. They did fusilade one armoured train — but its six-inch gun was fitted so high it fired harmlessly over their heads. Another, which they ignored (thinking it empty), porcupined with rifles and Magyars as soon as they were out of the way. Japanese quickly swarmed all over it pitchforking Hungarians out of the windows on bayonets.
The battle ended at the railway station in Kraevsk after another brief encounter with an armoured train. The train steamed off. The officers' breakfast steamed on a stove. Ward and some of his men ate it. The Japanese had six hundred casualties: the British, nil. 'This small minor action,' Ward wrote later, 'proved to be one of the most decisive of the war, as it destroyed the whole Terrorist army east of the Urals.'
After that he served as a kind of Military Governor for a time, holding court like a medieval baron, sole judge of everything from murder to who owned what, until in Octoberober 1918, he was ordered to Omsk, the Siberian capital, half a hostile continent away. Everybody was his enemy, even his friends. At Manchuli he [222/223] wrested railway coaches from his Japanese allies whose intention he believed was to discredit the British by making him travel in a cattle truck. At Chita they stole a locomotive, his men holding cocked rifles at the driver's head. Ward rode the tender, spattered with hot ash from the smoke stack.
Omsk he found to be a village of wooden huts interspersed with globed churches grouped around a ponderous Government House. He didn't stay long. Soon after they got there he and his battalion were off again, escorting Admiral Kolchak, Minister of War, across the Urals to the Volga battlefields where the Czechs dragged the tail of their army into Siberia, fighting off the Bolsheviks by the river. Then back in Omsk in mid-November a gang of Cossacks kidnapped half the Government, leaving the rest to elect Rolchak Supreme Ruler under Ward's machine guns. When everything is disintegrating, he said later, even the smallest core of single- mindedness and certainty can save an entire society. His regiment, he believed, was that core of certainty in Omsk that winter.
Early in 1919 (hiding from blizzards cold enough to freeze your eye fluids), Ward toured the Trans-Siberian railway speaking to meetings of workers, persuading them to support Kolchak as he had once persuaded gangs of navvies to join his union. His hecklers were less gentle than the Staffordshire men of 1906. Middle class revolutionaries, he called them: slouched hatted, unshaven shop- keepers, teachers, doctors, who kept their grip on the community by murdering anybody, worker or bourgeois, who disagreed with them.
In May, soldiers of the 2nd Siberian Cossack Regiment elected him to the rank of Ataman, a kind of chief, in a long ritual on the treeless steppes, pressed flat by a weight of sky. They were all giddy with vodka and wild whirling Cossack dances: stirred by marching tunes and sad, fierce, troubled Cossack songs. In May, also, he was ordered home. It was around the time of the Red Army offensive which broke Kolchak's forces and forced him into a long eastward retreat along the Trans-Siberian railway, which the Czechs still held and which they ran primarily to extricate their own Legion from Asia. Alongside the railway ran the trakt, the old Trans-Siberian highway, now deep in snow and broken regiments, deserters, running peasants and lost children. The Bolsheviks shot Kolchak in Februaryruary 1920, at Irkutsk on the frozen banks of the Angara, a river which in summer flows into sea-sized Lake Baikal. They slid his corpse down a snow slide into the water [223/224] through a hole in the ice.
On the Western Front the guns had long gone quiet, the men of the labour battalions long gone home. As well as infantry regiments, the Royal Engineers had also recruited navvies, as early as March 1915, into their own Labour units which came complete with missionaries, sent to war by the Navvy Mission with the Army's approval. They wore khaki, but with 'Navvy Mission' in place of regimental flashes on their shoulder straps. (What's the Royal Navy doing at the Front, soldiers kept asking.)
Missionary Wilkinson was with the 1st Labour Battalion, RE; Holden with the 5th; Leach, the 7th; Creber, 8th; Avery, 9th; Milner with the 10th. For them it was not unlike at home: catching men drumming up, preaching, reading, teaching in the evenings, except you didn't stand bare-headed at prayer on the Western Front, particularly near observation balloons where shrapnel fell like splintered iron rain.
'Navvies pure and simple,' said an officer describing his new RE recruits, 'builders' labourers, shipwrights, rough carpenters, old sailors, thatchers.' They worked behind the front line army making and repairing roads and railways, digging trenches, making corduroy roads from logs to haul guns out of mud. Part of the 8th Battalion quarried rock at night (even a small crater needed three tons of stone to fill it). The rest of the battalion worked the forests near Rouen.
For nearly two years the 2nd Battalion stayed in one place while Divisions and Corps came and went all around them. They felled timber, built and ran sawmills, quarried stone, built bunkers and roads and ran light railways. By May 1917 over half their original thousand were dead. (For every fifty casualties a navvy battalion suffered by enemy action, they lost another two hundred to illness and work accidents. Not unlike at home.)
By the end of the 1916 the Royal Engineers had eleven Labour Battalions, the infantry had thirty, while the Army Service Corps had thirty-one Labour Companies. That Decemberember a Directorate of Labour was set up to regroup them as Companies in a new Labour Corps. The ist Labour Battalion, RE, for instance, became 701 Company, Labour Corps; the 2nd Battalion, 702 Company; the 3rd, 703. The new regiment had its own badge: a spade and rifle crossed over a pick beneath a wreath topped by a crown. Motto: Labor Omnia Vincit — work overcomes all. Each Company was five hundred and thirty-six men strong. By Armistice Day the Labour [224/225] Corps on the Western Front numbered around a hundred and twenty-five thousand men. Not many of them were navvies, though the unofficial name — Navvy Battalion — still stuck.
The 1918 German offensive caught 707 Coy in a massive crossfire. Their mission hut exploded. A shell-burst killed Pioneer Jackson and wounded two others. For four days they lay under Royal Navy guns in the rear, German guns in front. 21 Company lost its gramophone and its little library. 21 Company's commanding officer lost his pet canary. Later the youth dug themselves into a deep maze of dugouts they called Underground City.
That Labour Corps men were killed by artillery, not rifle fire, was one of their problems. Technically they were not front line troops and so were ineligible for leave. 'We are still pegging away', said Missionary Milner, 709 Company, in 1917. 'The attempt to grow leave tickets in our gardens was a failure.'
'I received your PC at one of our saps, where two of our boys are buried down below', L/Cpl Fiddler Jack wrote to Mrs Garnett in 1916. 'They have been down there nearly three months now, it was no use trying to get them out as they were killed outright. I'm going to make a head cross in memory of them.' Fiddler Jack, who was with a Clay-kicker Company, made all his unit's crosses from old bits of timber they used as side-trees in the headings.
Clay-kickers were first raised by Empire Jack Norton Griffiths, baronet. Member of Parliament, wartime Colonel and pre-War colonial adventurer. (He also raised the 2nd King Edward's Horse from among fellow-imperialists.) He was Boy's Own Paper material, a man fulfilled by war and empire. By 1914 he was prospering after a dusty life on the veldt, in the bush, in the outback: tall, tanned by the never-setting colonial sun. He was both buoyant and flamboyant: he never gave in to adversity and drove through the sludge of the Western Front in his wife's chocolate-coloured Rolls. He had commanded Scouts in the Matabeleland-Mashonaland and Boer Wars. He had been in the Royal Horse Guards. Briefly he had been a sheep farmer, gold prospector, diamond prospector, South African company promoter and Empire-wide public works contractor. In 1914 he had a contract, one of many, to lay pipes in Manchester. In Manchester, pipes were laid by threading them through burrows bored through the subsoil. For this they used clay-kickers: clay-caked men who worked worm- or mole-like in burrows barely big enough for a man. [225/226] Each miner sat leaning backwards on a cross-shaped back-rest and kicked at the working face in front of him with a grafting tool, a shovel-like claw fitted with two kicking pegs on the haft. His muckshifter lay close by, scrabbling the spoil back down the burrow. They were more like burrowing animals excavating by claw than human miners. In fact they called themselves 'moles'. Moles, thought Empire Jack, were just what this war needed. The idea, first devised by the Germans, was to clay-kick your way under the enemy's trenches, pack the end of the burrow with ammonal, then blow them all to smithereens.
Clay-kickers were first drawn from their Manchester burrows on Februaryruary 17th, 1915, and set down the war-holes of France only hours later. They were a strangely soiled, shuffling, unsoldier-like bunch, unloved by the respectable regular army. The Royal Engineers kitted them out at its Chatham Depot, armed and instantly despatched them. Hours later in France the Army as instantly disarmed them for its own good. As a rule tunnel tigers spent a week between peacefulness and Flanders. (Tom Cusack, National Organiser of the Navvies' Union, was with the unit which blew the first big crater on the Somme.)
Underground was where the war of movement was, a few feet a day in three-foot burrows. Both Armies were terrified of the enemy underfoot. It made your soles ache waiting for them to detonate their mines, splinter your leg bones, and explode you tumbling in the air with the uplifted landscape. Mines went up like momentary loose-soiled mountains.
'If you know of any good tunnellers,' a navvy-sapper wrote home to Mrs Garnett, 'tell them it's up to them to come and help us out here. The money is pretty good and age no matter. One man here is fifty-eight, and a sapper now.' 'The work is very hard, as in any tunnel,' he went on,
we are as busy as bees, and also dangerous, as we have not got a fighting chance. There's always the possibility of the Germans being first, when by the pressure of a button up goes McGinty, and there you are, but we always look on the best side of course.
'We have a rough time out here,' said Fiddler Jack, 'but we're a bit rough ourselves, and we keep a good heart.' [226/227]
Last modified 25 April 2006