Below the front
Below the front, a wall of cloud climbs high
above the hill, black billows hide what light
there was, then crack. A flash and orange bloom,
as waves tear up the track.
Creating the Centena
In northern France, there lies a small village called Givenchy-lès-a-Basseé. In 2010, after a long campaign, a memorial to William Hackett VC, Thomas Collins and the Tunnelling Companies of the First World War was set up in the village.
Some 30,000 coal miners, clay tunnellers and mining engineers fought a largely clandestine war, digging to undermine and destroy the enemy’s defences.
The secrecy was of necessity, but it probably also left the miners’ story behind. As people sought to rebuild, openings were closed by farmers or lost to scrub, and people gradually forgot. Whilst individual miners are recorded as fallen soldiers on memorials across the battlefields, there was for some 90 years no dedicated memorial to the tunnellers.
The slab itself is just 4’ high and 2’6 wide, the dimensions of a typical tunnel, and overlooks the crater left by one of the biggest German mine explosions of the Great War – the Red Dragon crater. Conditions below were extreme; damp and dark, a risk of toxic gas, structural collapse, and with the miners at times able to hear the enemy tunnellers’ picks or voices through geophones, and even directly though the walls if the tunnels had come close. At least while you could hear these noises, you knew your opponents were active underground – a ceasing of activity might simply mean a pause in the work, or a prelude to setting the explosive mine for which their tunnelling was aimed.
William Hackett lived at the point he signed up at Mexborough, near Doncaster, and his story is also told as part of Doncaster 1914-18 – a partner in the Imperial War Museum’s World War I Centenary project. He applied and failed three times to join the infantry, and eventually, despite diagnosis of a heart condition, joined the Royal Engineers in October 2015. By the end of the year he was with 254 Tunnelling Company in Givenchy, on the Western Front.
On 22nd June 1916, William Hackett was part of a group driving a new tunnel towards German positions near Givenchy. At 2:50am a huge enemy mine exploded, causing a collapse in a large section of their gallery. After 20 hours’ digging, a rescue party reached the five trapped men. William helped three comrades out through the gap, but declined to leave himself, saying he needed to stay to look after a remaining colleague too injured to pass through the hole. The rescuers promised to return, but additional collapses blocked the newly cleared escape route. Despite four days of further digging it proved impossible to rescue the two remaining men, William Hackett and Thomas Collins. They both still lie buried there.
William Hackett was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions.
‘I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first.’ William Hackett VC, July 1916
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