Sapper 132062 William McManus, 252nd Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers.
William McManus was born in Batley c.1884 to parents Thomas and Mary. The family home was at 38, Peel Street, Batley at the time of the 1901 Census. William had siblings Sarah, Thomas, John, James and Marguerite. He had worked at Mitchell Main Colliery, Darfield for two years and lived in Darfield when he enlisted in there on 10.10.1915 and was soon sent to France. William was 5’ 6” tall with brown hair. He died on 2 March 1916, aged 31 and was buried at Auchonvillers Military Cemetery, 20kms south of Arras. Grave Ref: II.A.14. The following text details the activities of William McManus and 252nd Tunnelling Company in the months leading up to his death.
Underground Warfare: The Tunnellers
In early November 1915, the recently formed 252nd Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, (nickname ‘The Moles’) arrived in the Beaumont Hamel Sector to commence operations [the fortress village of Beaumont Hamel lay just behind German lines, 3 miles from the town of Albert in the Somme region of France]. Activity was not just confined to improvements of the trench system as below ground; the Royal Engineers were engaged in a more sinister and almost medieval type of warfare. Under the command of Captain Reginald Graham Trower M.C., work commenced immediately driving shafts under the German positions located on the Redan Ridge to counter enemy mining activity. They worked swiftly and having driven out a shaft to a distance of 35 feet, they exploded a charge of 500 lbs of Guncotton on the 5 November destroying an enemy gallery.
Undeterred, the enemy were frequently heard working and it soon became apparent towards the end of the month of November that another enemy gallery just to the south of Hawthorn Ridge had penetrated the first parapet, and that the enemy were now working under the second line. Captain Trower himself then descended into the British workings listening for sounds of enemy activity but after spending the day and the night underground, no sound of the enemy miners was heard. However due to continuing reports of enemy mining activity at this position, a shaft was sunk on the incline to push forward a gallery towards the German lines.
On the Redan Ridge, progress on two shafts sunk was going on apace when in one, underground enemy activity was detected to the south-east. Reacting to the situation once again, Captain Trower immediately proceeded to the mine shaft and ordered everything "to be held ready." With the tunnellers working throughout the night, a chamber was constructed to contain 980 lbs of Guncotton and 'Tamped' so as to concentrate the force of the explosion. With the charge set and tamping completed by 4 p.m. on the 28th November, the enemy could be heard at work just before the men came out of the shaft. At 4.30 p.m., the charge was detonated and the enemy were heard no more.
As the year of 1916 dawned, Captain Reginald Graham Trower was appointed to the rank of Temporary Major while in command of the 252nd Tunnelling Company.
On the Redan Ridge, the German tunnellers now sprang into action. At 5.30 a.m. on the morning of the 2nd January, an enemy mine was detonated under the south corner of the Redan but its effects were minimal due to the enemy charge being determined to be quite small.
As work continued in various tunnels, it was on the 24th January at 7.20 p.m that the enemy blew yet another large Camouflet [a small mine explosion forming an underground cavern but does not form a crater designed to destroy enemy workings] to the south-east. Although no substantial damage was caused to the gallery, as a result of the explosion the end had become closed, killing one man and wounding another. The man killed underground was one Sapper Edwin Orr, 121852, a married man of Littlethorpe Hill, Hartshead, Liversedge, Yorkshire. A Coal Miner before the war, Edwin is now buried in Auchonvillers Military Cemetery, Somme, France, as well as being commemorated on the war memorial located in St. Peter's Church, Hartshead. He was the first man of the 252nd Tunnelling Company to lose his life underground.
Even out of the line, the men were susceptible to danger. On the 25th, one man was killed and one man wounded by enemy artillery fire while in advanced billets located in cellars at Auchonvillers. As the month of January 1916 drew to a close, a chamber was constructed in a gallery and a charge of 3000 lbs of Guncotton was detonated at 1.35 a.m. on the morning of the 27th. It was noted that just before detonation, the enemy was close at hand.
Work resumed as per usual routine on the 29th when a vertical shaft was dug and timbered to a depth of 34 feet. On the following day, other workings were taken over from the infantry, with 252nd Company then placing 'listeners' under the Hawthorne Ridge.
Mining Activities Escalate
There now appears to be no record of the activities of the 252nd Tunnelling Company for the month of February 1916.
The War Diary now resumes on the 1st March recording that at 11.57 a.m. the enemy detonated a large Camouflet of about 3000 lbs of high explosive on the Redan Ridge. This charge destroyed 62 feet of a 252nd Tunnelling Coy. gallery with the unfortunate result that three men were killed while working at the face. Although their bodies could not initially be recovered, they were eventually brought out and now lie in Auchonvillers Military Cemetery, Somme. Those killed included Sapper William McManus, 132062, a former miner at Mitchell Main Colliery, Darfield, and a native of Batley, West Yorkshire.
It was on the 29th March that the first gallantry medals were awarded to the 252nd Tunnelling Company when Second Corporal Edward Brown, 147480, and Sapper John Burns, 139417, were both awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for their actions on the 1st March. Brown's citation in the London Gazette dated the 15th April 1916 reads:-
"For conspicuous devotion to duty in rescuing men who had been incapacitated after the blowing in of a camouflet. Later he re-entered the mine to rescue incapacitated tunnellers and worked strenuously till exhausted to extricate men who were entombed in a destroyed gallery."
Courtesy: Christopher James Noble, Western Front Association.
Remembered with Honour at Auchonvillers Military Cemetery, Auchonvillers, Somme, France.
Researched by Kenneth Fedzin and Kevin McQuinn for Project Bugle. January 2016