|The Underground War|
Review by Western Front Association member Dennis Williams
Volume 1: Vimy Ridge to Arras
Phillip Robinson and Nigel Cave
(Pen & Sword Military, 2011) £25
262 pp, including 23 maps,
49 plans/diagrams/tables, plus various b/w photos throughout the text.
Glossary, bibliography and index.
War underground is numbered amongst the most terrible types of fighting that occurred during the World War. It was conducted by a few men in narrow, airless galleries. This was the domain of the sappers; men of steel, both physically and mentally.
This extract is from an account of mining operations on Vimy Ridge by Reserve Leutnant Otto Riebike, 2nd Company 28 Engineer Regiment. Reading the full quote (page 85) in this relatively new publication on the tunnelling war, it is easy to conclude with the view of the book’s authors that ‘Perhaps this can stand as an epitaph for all the military miners of the time, whatever their nationality?’
This book is the first volume of what is intended to be a four-volume series looking at the mining war underneath the Western Front.
Interestingly, instead of the books proceeding in chronological sequence, the authors have chosen to focus on a particular region of the front in each volume. They start here with central Artois, including Vimy Ridge, the River Scarpe and Arras.
The authors Phillip Robinson and Nigel Caveare well-placed to guide us through this subterranean war underneath the battlefields of France and Flanders. Phillip Robinson has been engaged in researching the underground war for over twenty years, drawing on his prior experience as a Royal Engineer. Nigel Cave edits the First World War titles in Pen & Sword’s Battleground Europe and is a member of the Durand Group of which Phillip Robinson was the founder chairman.
As many readers may be aware, the Durand Group is a voluntary association dedicated to researching and investigating subterranean military features. Please refer to their website for more information.
The General Introduction to the book provides some valuable ideas for relevant reading and supporting books together with added suggestions for useful films to view. While probably already familiar to many Western Front Association (WFA) members, this section also gives some particular pieces of good advice to intending visitors to those sites that are accessible to the public (though many are not, often in private hands or no longer safe for access).
The book deals mainly with BEF tunnelling activity with some acknowledgement of French and principally German operations.
The latter is used to particularly good effect and provide a useful balance to the proceedings. The first chapter presents a summary of mine warfare including a brief overview of techniques and practice. Some of the latter are expanded upon as appropriate in subsequent chapters – the future volumes will also go into more detail on particular mining and tunnelling techniques.
To provide a context for what follows, chapter two provides background on the major offensives across Arras through to Vimy Ridge, concentrating on 1915 and 1917 as might be expected.
Much of this will be known to WFA members, but it is essential background in order to see how offensive mining ‘fits’ within overall military operations.
'The Underground War' is then organised by area and locality, with each chapter examining a different sector of the region and outlining the various tunnelling operations that took place including those of the enemy. It also looks in more detail at the specific features of the sector – concerning its history or geography as appropriate – which have particular implications for the mining that took place.
The added descriptions of the history of the tunnels after the war including their present accessibility mean that the book is, in essence, a practical handbook for intending visitors and tourers. This purpose is expanded upon in the final chapter that details five tours that can be undertaken, requiring walking and access to transport, listed as Zouave Valley to Maison Blanche; Neuville St Vaast to Roclincourt (and extension to Roeux); the Pimple (east), the Canadian Memorial site, La Folie Farm and environs; Arras; the Cemeteries.
'The Underground War' makes liberal and effective use of first-hand accounts by participants of both sides.
The account in chapter seven of a rescue attempt following a gas poisoning incident in August 1916 was an exciting read. There are also intriguing anecdotes such as the investigation into looting charges against a tunnelling company and its commander described in chapter seven. I particularly enjoyed chapter six on the La Folie sector and its description of the existing remains of the tunnels and the experience of exploring these in recent times. I can only concur with the authors’ statement on page 95 that ‘… this sector is a unique and historically priceless microcosm of the war waged on the surface and underground’.
I have one minor criticism concerning the book’s format, which may be a consequence of my academic training, in that it contains no footnotes or endnotes; and none of its contents or quotations is formally referenced. The authors do however refer regularly to their sources throughout the text, and all the first-hand accounts are prefaced by details on the narrator. I would, however, have expected a more structured approach to the book’s contents that would allow the reader to follow up or investigate particular points, information or quotations via a referenced footnote or similar.
I’m sure the information I would need is there somewhere but it could be more straightforward to find. I don’t know whether this was an editorial decision or the authors’ preference. However this should not detract from what is an important contribution to the literature on the Western Front and a valuable publication for anyone with an interest in military history.
'The Underground War' is a fascinating read.
It provides a comprehensive entry point into what is a whole sub-genre of the Western Front experience. There are a large number of interesting diagrams and maps, plus many photos that I suspect may be seeing publication for the first time. These alone make the book a good investment.
Despite the summaries contained at its start, this book is not really for those new to the First World War or military history.
Its value can be best appreciated by readers who have some knowledge already of military operations on the Western Front and who are looking to expand their understanding of same.
It should be an essential requirement for anyone planning a visit to the battlefields of Vimy and Arras – in my view, don’t leave home without a copy (already well-thumbed) in your rucksack.
I look forward with anticipation to the second volume.
Review by Dennis Williams October 2015