New Tredegar Tunnellers

In October 2015, I was contacted by a Peter Walker who was kind enough to give me the following information on New Tredegar Tunnellers. Some of the information is already in the website but his compilation impressed me such that I have included it on this page, almost as it was given to me. My thanks go to Peter for his work and allowing me to present it here.

David George Davies, 172 Tunnelling Company

David George Davies was born in New Tredegar in1890. By 1914 he was a collier in one of the local collieries and a part time soldier with the 1st Battalion Monmouthshire Regiment which he had joined in 1908 at the age of 17.

The Battalion was mobilised on 5th August 1914 and began a period of training and equipping before landing in France in February 1915. At the end of March Davies was attached to the Royal Engineers 59th Field Company then part of the 5th Division. The Division was involved in most of the early battles of the war including the Second Battle of Ypres and the Capture of Hill 60 in April 1915.

The 59th Field Company that Davies joined will have completed an impressive range of duties both at and behind the front lines, including digging new trench lines and repairing existing trenches, repairing and making roads and railways, building bridges, constructing artillery positions, digging wells and laying water pipes, and digging latrines and drainage ditches.

After six months with the 59th Field Company Davies transferred to 172nd Tunnelling Company as a Tunnellers Mate. 172 Company were operating in the Ypres region and focused its efforts on defending a British controlled feature called the Bluff and on attacking the Germans opposite.

The Bluff from the International Trench, Ypres in 1919

The Bluff was a spoil-heap on the British front line, created when the Ypres-Comines canal was excavated. It gave them a useful observation advantage over the Germans and had to be held.

Davies was promoted to Tunneller in January 1916 and moved with 172 Company to the area around Neuville St Vaast/Vimy for the remainder of 1916 and the early months of 1917. He spent a week in hospital at the end of March and transferred to 251 Tunnelling Company in July 1917.

251 Company had been operating around Cuinchy-Cambrin-Auchy for a considerable time and on 10 August 1917, near Givenchy, it blew the last large offensive mine fired by the British in the war. In September 1917 whilst Davies was on leave and staying with his aunt in New Tredegar, a deserter from the army broke into the house and stole his wallet but Davies got his money back and returned to the front.

By April 1918, 251 Company were in the area between the Lys and La Bassee canal, working on defensive schemes and they took part in the successful defence of Givenchy when the Germans launched their spring offensive.

Davies survived the war, and as a coal miner considered essential to home industries, he was discharged from the army and returned to civilian life on 16 December 1918.

William Morgan, 172 Tunnelling Company

William Morgan was born in 1889 in Mountain Ash but at some stage his parents had moved the family to Tirphil in New Tredegar. By 1914 Morgan, his wife Bertha and son Ivor were living half a mile down the valley at 1 Charles Street, Brithdir.

Morgan worked in one of the local collieries as a collier and had enlisted in the 1st Battalion of the Monmouthshire Regiment, then a territorial unit in April 1908 for 4 years and then signed up for another 4 years in April 1912. He was fond of sport and music, and was a member of the Bargoed and Brithdir Brass Bands.

The 1st Battalion was mobilised on the outbreak of war in August 1914 and landed in France on 13th February 1915, as part of the 84th Brigade in 28th Division. Morgan landed with them but was immediately attached to the 172 Tunnelling Company which was then being formed.

On formation 172 was first employed in the Bluff/St Eloi areas of Ypres but then focused on the Bluff when 175 Company took over at St Eloi in July 1915. It was whilst 'attached' to 172 that Morgan was promoted to Lance Corporal and won the Distinguished Conduct Medal. His citation reads:

    497 Pte W MORGAN 1/1 Mons TF
    For conspicuous good work near Ypres on the evening of 12th July 1915, after the enemy had exploded a mine just short of our parapet. A gallery was driven out to protect the trench and the German mine was struck. It was found to contain a charge and about 1350 lbs. of explosive, some detonators and part of the main electric firing lead were withdrawn by the united efforts of three Officers, Private Morgan and three men. (London Gazette 15.9.15)

    Morgan officially transferred to the Royal Engineers on 4th August 1915, first as a Tunnellers Mate and 2 days later he was promoted to Tunneller. He served with 172 in this capacity until March 1916 when his 4 year enlistment as a territorial came to an end and he returned home to civilian life.

Like most 'time expired' territorial's however, Morgan soon reenlisted and rejoined 172 in the Neuville St Vaast/Vimy area in May 1916, although he didn't get his £15 reenlistment bounty until September. He served with 172 throughout the rest of 1916 and the whole of 1917, until in January 1918 he was invalided back to Britain suffering from Hepatitis. On 26th July 1918 Morgan was granted a pension and discharged from the army as 'surplus to military requirements'.

He may well have considered himself a lucky man, as many of his comrades with whom he landed in France in February 1915 died soon after in May 1915 when the 1st Battalion of the Monmouthshire Regiment was virtually wiped out during the 2nd Battle of Ypres

Corporal Isaac Rees Evans, 254 Tunnelling Company

Isaac Evans was born in Penmark, near Barry in 1890. His family moved to New Tredegar, where in 1914 he was a miner living with his wife Gladys in Colliers Row.

Evans had joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a territorial in 1908, so as a Special Reservist he was mobilised on 5th August 1914, the day after war was declared.

After a period of training he landed in France in early December 1914, as a replacement for either the 1st or 2nd (Regular) Battalions already serving in France or with the 1/4th (Territorial) Battalion which landed in November.

In December 1915, after a year in the trenches with the infantry, and seven years in the territorials, Evans was discharged from the Army as a time-expired territorial. Like many such time-expired men however, he re-enlisted, joining 254 Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers in February 1916.

Having joined 254 as a Tunnellers Mate Evans was attested as a Tunneller in May 1916. 254 Company was then working on de-watering several of the British galleries which had become flooded in the area north of Givenchy.

A month later in June 1916 an incident would occur which would result in the only award of a Victoria cross to a Tunneller when the Germans fired a mine as part of a planned infantry attack.

On the night of 22nd June the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers had relieved a battalion of the Hertfordshire Regiment in the trenches just to the north east of Givenchy.

Frank Richards was a former miner from Blaina and a signaller in A Company and learned from a signaller in the Hertfordshires that the last four days had been very quiet.

It was a glorious summer's night and the stillness was uncanny but Richards and other old hands didn't like it one little bit. They knew something was going to happen and few hours later it did, Richards was awoken by a terrific explosion.

A German mine had exploded directly under B Company of the Battalion, killing or injuring some two thirds of the company. The crater formed at the surface by the mine was about 120 yards long, over 70 yards wide and some 30 feet deep.

As German artillery began bombarding the position and those around it, they launched a large infantry assault to try to capture the crater and the adjacent trenches. They were beaten back in hand to hand fighting by C Company and the remnants of B Company. The western lip of the crater was later incorporated into the British front line and came to be known the Red Dragon Crater.

Although the greatest impact of the German mine had been felt by the infantry on the surface at whom it had been aimed, it had also had its impact on the men of 254 Tunnelling Company, whose tunnels were below the position. The mine blew in twenty-five feet of one of their tunnels, trapping five men, amongst them William Hackett a former miner from Yorkshire. Although Evans had only known Hackett for a few months the two men had become friends and Hackett being illiterate had relied on Evans to write his letters home for him. Evans and several other Welsh miners were in the rescue parties that were immediately organized.

After two days of digging, a small hole was formed through the fallen earth and broken timbers. Hackett helped three men to safety, but he refused to leave the seriously injured 22-year-old Thomas Collins, who had been attached to 254 Company from the Swansea Pals. Hackett is reported to have said ‘I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first’. The rescuers worked on but the gallery collapsed again, entombing the two men beneath the fields of Givenchy where they still remain today.

From Deeds that Thrill the Empire, © Dix Noonan Webb

For his selfless act Hackett was eventually awarded the Victoria Cross, the only tunneller to be awarded this medal. After Hackett’s death Evans wrote to his widow Alice, who's 16-year-old son Arthur, a coal miner, had lost a leg in a pit accident a month before.

July 3rd
Dear Mrs Hackett,
I am most sorry to have to write to you under such circumstances that is to inform you that your Husband Sapper Hackett was Killed in Action on 22nd June but I can tell you that that he died a heroes death as brave as any man as died in this war which I hope before long you will hear more about it.
And I can tell you your Husbands death is sadly felt as he was respected by all the officers and men of the 254 Company and as for myself I miss him so much as if he was my own Father as you know I used to write his letters for him. And all the boys of his section wish me to send you their best wishes and hope that you and the children will have the best of health and good luck and hope you will try and bear the sad news and they asked me to tell you that you can be proud of the way your husband died as he was a hero if ever there was one.
I only wish I could tell it the way it happen but as you know we are not allowed to but if I am spared to come over this lot I will come and see you and let you know all about it.
Well Mrs Hackett I must draw to a close by wishing you and the children the best of health and good luck.
I beg to remain
Yours truly I R Evans

 

Evans was promoted Corporal in March 1917, then in May 1917 254 Company moved to the north of the Ypres salient opposite Passchendaele to prepare for the planned offensive. They remained here throughout the Battle of Passchendaele, assisting the infantry and constructing dugouts to protect them from shellfire.

They were still engaged on this work on 13 March 1918 when the Germans bombarded the area with gas shells. An officer and twenty-one other ranks of 254 Company were wounded and Isaac Evans and four other men were killed. One of those killed that day and buried next to the 28 year old Evans in the Oxford Road, Cemetery, was Sapper Lewis Leigh from Pontnewydd.

Evans widow, Gladys, was sent his personal effects consisting of coins, a wallet, letters, cards, photos, a silver watch and chain and a knife.

David John James, 171 Tunnelling Company

David James was born in Ystrad in the Rhondda in 1878. He became a miner and sometime around 1900 he moved to New Tredegar to work. As was common in those days he ended up marrying the daughter of the family he lodged with and by 1914 they had five children and James was a Colliery Fireman, most probably at the nearby Elliots colliery.

James had some previous military experience, having served 6 years with the Cardigan Artillery Volunteers as a young man.

In September 1915 James joined the Royal Engineers as a Tunnellers Mate and after a short period at the Royal Engineers base at Chatham, he landed in France on 10th October to join 180 Tunnelling Company. However he had only been in France for a few weeks when he was sent back to the UK.

Over the next 26 months James would spend 11 months either in the UK or at a Base Depot in France on medical grounds. He was variously admitted to hospital, with Nystagmus, a common eye disease of miners caused by poor lighting, the effects of gas, and a sprained ankle. Officially James would serve with four different tunnelling companies. He notionally served with 175 Company as well as the above mentioned 180 Company, but his main periods of service consisted of seven months with 174 Company and eight months with 171 Company.

James joined 174 Company at Bois Français, near Mametz in the Somme during the second half of 1916 but within days of joining them James was wounded by gas and treated at a Field Ambulance station.

The British had taken over the northern part of the Somme valley from the French in July 1915 and 174 company was one of several tunnelling companies sent to the area. The area had already been the scene of much underground fighting. No-mans-land was very narrow, becoming pockmarked by so many craters that it became known as the Glory Hole. Mining here was in hard chalk and required different techniques to those used in the soft clay of Flanders. With the Germans well established underground 174 therefore had hard mining and fighting at Bois Français to counter the German mining threat and to place their own mines for the planned British attack of 1st July 1916.

On the first day of the battle of the Somme eight large and eleven small mines were fired to both destroy the German defences and to provide cover in no man's land for the advancing infantry.Following the successful firing of the mines the tunnellers followed the infantry into the German lines, destroying German dugouts and helping to consolidate the new front line. In the Autumn of 1916, 174 moved a few miles north to opposite Beaumont-Hamel where it continued to fight the Germans underground.

James left 174 in December and spent time in the base deport and in the UK before returning to the front in April 1917 to join 171 Company, then operating opposite the Messines Ridge, just south of Ypres. Two months after James arrived, this area was to be the scene of the largest and most successful mining attack of the war.

Several tunnelling companies spent a year digging under no-mans-land to place a total of 25 large mines under the German held ridge. 171 Company were responsible for the Spanbroekmolen and Ontario Farm mines, which together with another 17 mines were detonated on 7 June 1917.

As on the Somme, the tunnellers followed up the infantry helping them to clear the German trenches and consolidate their gains. It is said that 10,000 Germans died in seconds when the mines were fired and the infantry attack that followed was a complete success. After Messines and the Battle of Passchendaele in the autumn of 1917, the British were left with little natural shelter on Passchendaele ridge, so the British tunnellers were set to work to provide the shelter the infantry needed. 171 Company began constructing the Vampire dugout complex near to the village of Zonnebeke.

On the 28th December 1917 whilst 171 were still working on Vampire and other dugouts, David James was killed by a German shell, he is buried in the nearby Tyne Cot Military Cemetery, Belgium.

James John Lewis, 175 Tunnelling Company

James John Lewis was born in New Tredegar in 1885. When war broke out he and his wife Dorothea lived in Derlwyn Street, Phillipstown and where he was a collier, probably working at nearby Elliots colliery. Most of Lewis's military records have been lost but we do know that he joined 175 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers and, as he was not awarded the 1914/15 Star campaign medal, we also know that he landed in France sometime after December 1915.

175 Company had been working in the Railway Wood-Hooge-Armagh Wood area of the Ypres Salient ever since it was formed in April 1915.

The fighting around the important position of Hooge was particularly intense and 175 Company had fired mines under the German position which had helped the British infantry to capture it.

175 Company were also responsible for digging mines under the Messines Ridge. They began by driving two galleries under the Hill 60 and Caterpillar positions. Having started these they handed them over to the newly arrived 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company in order to concentrate on the Spanbroekmolen and Kruisstraat mines further south on the ridge. Whilst working on these offensive mines under the ridge, men from 175 also began digging what would become the Lettenberg Bunkers, a dugout complex behind the lines at Kemmel. Then in May 1916, 175 Company moved south to the Somme, where the British had taken over from the French.

175 Company remained here for the best part of a year working in 'O' Sector (Neuville St Vaast) opposite Vimy Ridge. This was a difficult area as the Germans looked down on the British positions from the summit of the ridge. A number of Tunnelling Companies were deployed to combat the German miners who had got the better of their French counterparts.

This underground clash developed into a desperate struggle, with both sides blowing mines to destroy enemy infantry positions and camouflet charges to destroy the opposition's mining activity. There was much above-ground fighting as a result, as each side tried to gain control of the resultant craters but gradually, the British miners gained the upper hand.

By June 1917 Lewis and 175 Company had moved back north to the area just south of Ypres. They didn't move back to the Messines Ridge itself, but arrived in time to see 19 of the 25 mines under the ridge fired on 7 June 1917.

It is said that 10,000 Germans died in seconds when the mines were fired and the infantry attack that followed was a complete success. 175 and other Tunnelling companies followed up the infantry helping them to clear German trenches, consolidate their gains and dig new dugouts.

James Lewis survived the intense underground fighting of 1916 and 1917 but was killed on 31st July 1917 whilst 175 Company was deployed on the notionally safer task of digging accommodation bunkers. He died aged 33 and is buried in La Clytte Military Cemetery, near where he was killed.

Henry Thomas Parfitt, 171 Tunnelling Company

Henry Thomas Parfitt was born in 1890 in Horfield, Bristol but by 1911 his parents had moved the family to Alexandra Road in New Tredegar. Parfitts father was a bricklayer whereas he himself was listed on the census as a ‘haulier and general dealer’.

Soon after war was declared Parfitt joined the 8th Battalion South Wales Borderers. In February 1915 whilst training at St Leonards, near Hastings in Sussex, D Company of the battalion was paraded and an officer explained that the Royal Engineers were looking for men with mining experience willing to be transferred for special front line duty.

The men were informed that their pay would be 'six shillings a day’, high pay for 1915. Of the fifty men from D Company that stepped forward Parfitt was one of a dozen eventually selected for an interview. As only miners were required, it would seem therefore that Parfitt had become a miner between 1911 and 1914.

Forewarned that they might be asked to sign for the standard sappers' pay of two-and two pence a day, the men decided to stick out for the higher rate. The first to be interviewed was Private Dave Evans but he was back quickly and told the others what had happened.

Major Norton Griffiths had thrust a piece of paper into his hand and said ‘Sign here’. ’What's the rate, sir?’ Private Evans had asked. ‘Two-and-two’. ‘I'm not signing, sir’. The Major stuck his chin forward in anger. ‘Then get out’ he said. One by one every man walked in, defied the Major and were promptly ordered out.

Needing men badly though, Norton Griffiths relented and signed them up at six shillings a day. The party from the Borderers was joined by twelve men from the 11th Welsh, another twelve from the 8th South Staffordshires and thirty clay kickers from Manchester.

All sixty-six were on their way to France within three days. Another eighty volunteers from the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the Monmouthshire Regiment joined them.

The newly formed 171 Tunnelling Company would spend the whole of their war in the north of the British line. They began mining at Hill 60 and the Bluff, two areas of high ground close to Ypres, where they engaged in an intense battle underground with German miners

171 Company then moved to Ploegsteert at the southern end of the Messines ridge, where over the course of a year they dug four deep mines under the ridge and charged them with a combined load of 73 tons of ammonal explosive.Whilst working on the offensive mines under the ridge, 171 Company also built a number of accommodation and headquarters dugouts for the infantry as well as machine gun emplacements in the front line. The London Gazette of 9th July 1917 recorded that it was during this period of preparation that Parfitt was awarded the Military Medal for an act of gallantry.

The mines laid by 171 Company were just 4 of the 25 dug under the Messines ridge. On 7 June 1917, at the opening to the Battle of Messines, around 500 tons of explosive in 19 mines was fired. Some 10,000 German troops holding the ridge were killed in a few seconds. The infantry attack that followed was the most successful of the war and 171 Company helped the infantry to consolidate their gains.

171 Company was engaged on the same sort of work during the Battle of Passchendaele, when Parfitt was wounded and died on 16th August whilst being treated at the 22nd London Field Ambulance.

Henry Thomas Parfitt, was buried at Menin Road Cemetery near Ypres, although his actual grave was lost so he is remembered on Special Memorial 15.

Richard Ware, 257 Tunneling Company

Richard Ware was born in 1883 in Undy, Monmouthshire. By 1914 he was a collier in New Tredegar where he lived with his wife Alice and their two children. The couple would have a third child in 1915 before Ware left for the front.

Most of his military records have been lost but what we do know is that Ware landed in France sometime after December 1915, to become a Sapper in 257 Tunnelling Company.

There's no record of Ware having served in any other Tunnelling Company so it's possible that he joined 257 Company when it was formed in May 1916 in Rouen.

In June 1916 following a brief orientation period, the Company began operating in the Neuve Chapelle/Laventie/Fauquissart area. Soon after their arrival No. 3 Section of the Company were pressed into action as infantry and assisted the 5th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment in repelling a German attack near the Ducks Bill, Givenchy.

During their time at Neuve Chapelle the Company suffered the usual casualties caused by German counter-mining, shellfire etc. but they also lost 4 men when they were drowned in an inrush of water when their tunnel hit an abandoned and flooded German tunnel.

At the end of June 1917 257 Company moved to Coxyde and Oost Dunkirke on the Belgian coast. Their task was to construct infantry subways at Redan in Niewport for the planned British offensive called Operation Hush. 

Subways were underground passages from one location to another that allowed men and supplies to be moved below ground, unobserved by the enemy and safe from direct small arms fire. In the coastal area this work was done in sand under difficult conditions and unlike soil conditions on any other part of the front.

However, the Germans got wind of the planned attack and instead launched their own offensive on 10th July called Operation Strandfest. As part of the attack the Germans used a new form of gas for the first time – Yellow Cross – Mustard Gas. After the initial attack was halted the Germans continued the shelling and gas attacks throughout July and August. As a result 257 Company suffered more casualties in this period than at any other time. 

On the 21st November 1917 the Company marched back to the Ypres area but Ware wasn't with them, having died on 16th November, aged 34. Such records of his that remain show him as having 'died' rather than having been 'killed in action' or 'died of wounds' as would be the case if he had died as a result of enemy action. Perhaps he was an early victim of the Spanish Flu that would kill millions?

Richard Ware is buried at Coxyde Military Cemetery, just south of Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast, near where he died.

Charles Poole, 170 Tunnelling Company

Charles Poole was born in Birmingham in 1875. After joining the army and serving in the 2nd Boer War in South Africa he moved to Tirphil in New Tredegar and became a collier.

Most of Poole's service records have been lost but what we do know is that he joined the South Wales Borderers sometime in the early autumn of 1914. He landed in France at the end of January 1915 and joined the 1st Battalion on 1st February as one of 150 replacements.

Poole served with the 1st Battalion in the trenches at Givenchy and Festubert for just five weeks, as he was one of 8 men transferred to the Royal Engineers on 8th March. He joined 170 Tunnelling Company which began mining whilst still in the process of being formed in the area of Givenchy, a coal mining area roughly thirty miles south of Ypres.

In June 1915 the company moved a mile south to Cuinchy to face the German-held Brickstacks and the Hohenzollern Redoubt, considered to be the strongest defensive work on the Western Front. It was on the site of a pre-war coal mining complex and contained a slagheap, known to the British as The Dump, which provided views in all directions. 

Tunnelling in the area was difficult because below the clay in which the trenches were dug lay what the Germans called the Schwimmsande, a two-metre thick layer of waterlogged running sands. The Germans had been unable to penetrate this layer and thought the British would have similar problems.

Fortunately the problem was not quite as bad on the British side of the lines and the miners of 170 Company managed to sink a shaft through it with steel tubbing into the clay below. From then on the British were able to drive their tunnels through the clay towards, and under, the Germans in relative safety.

The 170 Company blew two mines at the Hohenzollern redoubt at the opening of Battle of Loos in September 1915 for which they had also constructed several infantry subways to protect the attacking infantry as it moved to the front line.

It was whilst 170 Company was still in this very active area that Charles Poole was killed in action on 29th July 1916. He was 42 years of age and is buried at Noeux-Les-Mines Cemetery near where he was killed.

James Price, 180 Tunnelling Company

James Price was born in Tirphil in 1891. He lived in Elliotstown with his wife Ethel and their daughter Gladys and was a collier, probably at nearby Elliots Colliery.

Sometime after December 1915 Price landed in France and joined 180 Tunnelling Company which had been formed at Labuissiere near Bethune in Autumn 1915. They immediately moved into the Vermelles sector near Loos where the infantry urgently required the support of the tunnellers to build saps and communication trenches as quickly as possible in preparation for the Battle of Loos, planned for September 1915. 

During the battle itself, they provided further support for the infantry by bringing up supplies of bombs, ammunition and other essential equipment.

Following the Battle of Loos the fight against the German tunnellers continued and 180 company fired several mines before moving north to Givenchy. For the next two years 180 Company moved up and down the middle of the British Line to wherever they were most needed.

In March 1918, during the German Spring Offensive, 180 Company acted as emergency infantry, fighting alongside the infantry and holding their own line between St. Emilie and Ronssoy. They went on to destroy a total of twenty one bridges, two camps, a large RE ammunition dump and many billets, thus slowing the advance and preventing the Germans taking possession of these assets.

The Company were in the Albert area during the allied 'Advance to Victory' of the summer and early autumn of 1918 when they cleared thirty two unexploded charges and over one hundred land mines. They were under constant attack from machine guns and high explosive shells, whilst the operation was made even more difficult by the need to wear gas masks because of the enemy's use of gas shells.

At this time the company received a letter from Commander in Chief, Haig:
“He conveys his high appreciation of the excellent work done by Major G. F. Johnson M.C., the officers, N.C.O.s and men of the 180th in clearing traps in the neighbourhood of Albert. The class of work involved called for the highest form of courage from those engaged on it.”

The Armistice on 11 November brought no respite for the Company. As the Germans retreated the allies followed them to the frontier and the Tunnellers were again at the forefront clearing mines and booby traps.

On 15 November 1918, four days after the Armistice and the cessation of hostilities, 180 Company would lose an officer and seven other ranks killed when clearing mines and booby traps in Epehy. Lance Corporal James Price was one of those killed. He was 27 years of age and is buried in Templeux-le-Guerard British Cemetery near where he died.

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