Collie Boys: Australian Mining Corps in WWI

Lest we forget: Six of the eight members of the Collie Boys 3rd Tunnelling Company who will be talked about in next week's article. Photo: Supplied.

Lest we forget: Six of the eight members of the Collie Boys 3rd Tunnelling Company who will be talked about in next week's article. Photo: Supplied.

The Australian Mining Corps was formed during WW1 when it was suggested that the exceptional skills of the Australian mining industry could be utilised at the front.

In 1915, 1000 men from all over Australia were assembled in NSW for military training in the Mining Corps.

The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Australian Tunnelling Companies were formed.

It was not surprising that among them were miners from the coalfields of Collie.

After training, the three companies embarked for France in May, 1915.

The 1st Australian tunnelling company was despatched to Ypres and worked on the infamous Hill 60 operations.

The 2nd Coy went to Neuville, and the 3rd Coy to Fauquissart for work on Hill 70.

Typically, tunnels were dug by hand using a technique called 'clay kicking'.

Tunnellers lay on a plank angled away from the working face using a digging tool, which had a cuplike rounded end, between their legs with their feet.

The tool was turned manually and the soil was silently removed then placed in sand bags and passed out of the tunnel through a chain of men.

Silence was imperative any sound could alert the enemy with dire consequences, including exploding charges which collapsed tunnels killing those trapped inside.

Occasionally the tunnellers would encounter German tunnellers engaged in the same task and underground hand to hand fighting took place.

Networks of tunnels were constructed by both sides. The tunnels provided protection for resting soldiers, eating and medical care, away from the carnage above.

Deep mines were also sunk beneath the enemy lines, the shafts were then filled with explosives and detonated, usually before a major attack.

The largest of these explosions took place in June 1917, below the Messines Ridge, near Ypres.

Works, included the sinking of 22 mine shafts, began in late 1915.

The shafts were estimated to be a total of 8km in length below the enemy held ridge.

Hill 60 was a spoil heap from a railway cutting, which formed a small rise on the crest of Messines Ridge.

The initial works were conducted by British and Canadian tunnellers, with the 1st Australian Tunnelling Coy taking over in November 1916.

On June 7, 1917 the explosives were detonated, the blasts created one of the largest pre-nuclear explosions in history, demolishing the ridge and killing thousands of German soldiers.

The blast was reportedly heard in London, 260km away.

There were 21 miners from Colliewho served in the Mining Corps during WW1. Sadly, two Collie Boys died while on active service: 6821 William KENNY and 5400 James Rhys PRITCHARD.

A full list of Collie Boys who served in the Tunnelling Companies of the Australian Mining Corps is available at colliemail.com.au.

Part 2 in next week's paper.