Planned memorial to Spr William Hackett VC and RE Tunnellers

Military mining as a form of siege warfare is certainly not new. It dates back many hundreds of years. It is a well known type of siege warfare. During the Great War as the war of movement ended and all sides became bogged down static warfare the Germans were the first to employ this type of warfare against the allies, exploding 10 mines under Indian and British troops at Festubert, northern France in December 1914. The allies wanting a war of movement were slow to accept mining as a viable form of warfare. This is because the lines need to be static for some time enabling your miners to sink his shafts and drive out his tunnels undermining the enemy. By latter 1914 Mine Warfare was being seriously considered by the British as a way to break the stalemate that now existed on the Western Front.
Mining under the enemy has always been the task of the Royal Engineers. By 1915 Tunnelling Companies were being formed by ex miners now in uniform and many miners from around the Empire were recruited and draughted into the Army to form Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers. Over 20.000 miners would see service in WW1 with many more thousands of infantry attached as ancillary labour. Many of them only had a few days military training prior to being shipped to the front, this is because they already knew their trade. As well as facing death as any soldier would near the front, on the surface, these men also faced a horrible death of entombment underground. The enemy, well aware at times of the mining around him would blow underground charges, known as Camouflets to try and collapse and destroy enemy mine workings. Many Tunnellers suffered this awful fate. As a result of many underground actions taking place many RE Tunnellers carried out acts of immense bravery and courage and were never truly rewarded for it as men in other arms were. There is a reason for this: Tunnelling, second to espionage, was probably the most secret form of warfare fought in WW1. The work of the Tunnelers in their task of offensive mining and dugout construction only came into the public domain in 1962! Look at period RE recruitment posters. Few, if any mention mining as a trade undertaken by the RE. Many mining operations took many months and in some cases years to complete. A Miner awarded for bravery and then his actions gazetted into a newspaper would just alert enemy intelligence to our operations. During WW1 only one RE Tunneller was ever awarded the VC. His name was Sapper William Hackett, a civilian miner, from Mexborough, Nottinghamshire. He was a member of 254 Tunnelling Company RE which in June 1916 were employed on mining operations at Givenchy, northern France. On 23rd June 1916 he was working with a shift of RE Miners and attached infantry labourers in a tunnel system known as the Shaftsbury Shaft. They were in tunnels about two thirds of the way across no mans land when the enemy fired a mine in their vicinity, near what became known as Red Dragon Crater. As a result of the enemies mine exploding Spr Hackett and his men were caught underground. Most of them were injured, Hackett being the only one able bodied, following the explosion. He helped 3 of his shift to their mine shaft and up the shaft to safety. His fourth team member, Pte Thomas Collins, 14th Bn Welsh Regt, also a miner, was trapped under fallen debris. A mine rescue party was soon on the scene, but Hackett refused to leave his pal. He is recorded to have said “I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first.” Due to further enemy action the rescue party were compelled to withdraw, Spr Hackett remaining with Pte Collins. The rescue party tried to get to them for a few days after but failed and so Hackett and Collins remain in their tunnel today under the soil of French Flanders. As a result of his selfless act, Spr Hackett was awarded a posthumous VC. The ONLY VC to be awarded to a Tunneller.

His citation reads:
:-"For most conspicuous bravery when entombed with four others in a gallery owing to the explosion of an enemy mine. After working for 20 hours, a hole was made through fallen earth and broken timber, and the outside party was met. Sapper Hackett helped three of the men through the hole and could easily have followed, but refused to leave the fourth, who had been seriously injured, saying," I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first." Meantime, the hole was getting smaller, yet he still refused to leave his injured comrade. Finally, the gallery collapsed, and though the rescue party worked desperately for four days the attempt to reach the two men failed. Sapper Hackett well knowing the nature of sliding earth, the chances against him, deliberately gave his life for his comrade".

The Tunnellers have no memorial to them, remembering their gallant work in WW1. This however is about to change. Peter Barton, a former mine/underground rescue specialist and author of many books on WW1, has been studying the stories of the Tunnellers for over 25 years. In 2004 he published the definitive book of mining operations under the Ypres Salient: “Beneath Flanders Fields – The Tunnellers War 1914-18”.
Peter and his partner Maggie Lindsay Roxburgh, who worked at the RE library, Chatham for over 20 years are now starting a fund which will lead to the building of the Tunnellers memorial. Once the money has been raised the memorial will be built and erected at Givenchy to the memory of Spr Hackett but also all the Tunnellers who gave their lives in WW1.

A couple of years ago, using Geo-physical ground radar. The Shaftsbury mine system was located. It lies today under a farmers field. The memorial will be built nearby and is shaped as thus:

The base of the memorial is circular, the same shape and dimension of the Shaftsbury shaft. On the circular base stands a rectangular block, the same dimension as the tunnel leading off the shaft in which Hackett and Collins lie. In the rectangular block is a hollow “T” representative of the patch worn by the tunnelers. The hollow “T” will be filled with clear glass in which is a crosshair. As you look on through the cross hairs, they fall onto the spot on the field where the Shaftsbury shaft is located.

There are a number of avenues being explored in the raising of funds for the memorial, including approaching the RE themselves. I live and work in Ypres where I am raining money and thought of ARRSE as a good way to do this. For those kind hearted and interested to donate a few pounds towards the memorial UK cheques made payable to “The Tunnellers memorial fund” can be posted to:

Maggie Lindsay Roxburgh, 8 Egbert Rd, Faversham, Kent, ME13 8SJ, UK.

I have an artist’s proof of the memorial and will post it here when I can.

Many thanks in advance.

There is a new memorial stone to Spr Bill Hackett VC ("Youtheh VC") to be unveiled by the Lord Mayor of Nottingham at the Nottingham City War Memorial on the Victoria Embankment (near Trent Bridge) on Tuesday 21 June at 1030 hrs.

Once it's unveiled I'll try and post up a photo