Underground Warfare 1914-1918

By Simon Jones

Pen & Sword, 2010

I’m a little late to the party as it is now ten years since Simon Jones’ book on underground warfare was originally published, and I have only just read it; this is my loss as it is a detailed and well-written account of what became a core aspect of the conflict.

The sheer volume of underground activity such as mining that took place during the First World War is truly staggering. Just one example from the book sets the scene – in the Vauquois region, over a period of just three years, 519 mines or camouflets were blown in an area equivalent to roughly four football pitches, and German tunnels reached a depth of up to 95 metres. The area was an important observation post, hence the amount of mining, yet it shows the lengths that the opposing armies would go to in what became a protracted and destructive part of the war.

In this fascinating work Simon Jones does more than just scratch the surface of this subject (see what I did there?!). After a brief introduction to military mining before the war, a broadly chronological approach is taken, examining the early mining operations of the war and then looking at some of the key areas of mining activity such as St Eloi, the Somme, Vimy, and Messines. Final chapters cover the improvements in technology and other underground activities such and accommodation and communications.

Jones shows how British mining in 1915 was uncoordinated, but from early 1916 was reorganised to great effect, the British benefitting from civilian experts. Much of 1916 was then devoted to preparing the mines along the Messines Ridge that were used to such great effect in 1917, having been concealed and protected all of that time. On the other hand the Germans initially dominated mining but then suffered due to a lack of civilian expertise and un-coordinated mining activity.

One area I found particularly interesting was around the problems encountered when trying to integrate the blowing of mines with planned infantry attacks, epitomised by the premature detonation of the Hawthorn mine 10 minutes before the infantry attack on 1st July 1916, with devastating consequences. Another aspect explored by Jones is the use of tunnels to convey troops closer to the front lines. The tunnels at Vimy are an example of how these tunnels were used to great effect; by then the lessons had been learned that pushing ‘Russian saps’ into no man’s land was not particularly effective.

A rich variety of pictures, diagrams and maps supplement the text. It would have been easy for Jones to just concentrate on British mining and tunnelling efforts, but the fact that French and German mining is also covered helps to give a more comprehensive and balanced picture of just how prevalent and important the war underground was. This book should be top of the list for learning about the subject

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Underground Warfare 1914-1918