A senior mining engineering who almost single-handedly raised recognition of the contribution of miners to campaigns on the Western Front has again paid tribute to their efforts.
The following is Ross Thomas’s Anzac Day tribute to miners:
I am proud to report that the Australian movie, BENEATH HILL 60 released back in 2010 about Australian miners who tunnelled in terrifyingly claustrophobic environments under the trenches of the Western Front during the Great War has promoted wide acknowledgement for their otherwise sadly forgotten heroic war efforts.
About 4700 miners were recruited, predominantly from the mining sector in Australia, to join the Australian Mining Corps, formed initially in May 1915 to assist their countrymen at Anzac Cove.
They were diverted to the European theatre of war when the Gallipoli campaign was eventually abandoned.
Upon arrival on the Western Front in May 1916, the Corps was broken up into three separate Australian tunnelling companies, dependent on the miners’ experience with either hard or soft rock mining.
They were then allocated to individual British units, dependent on mining conditions on the Western Front, which could have been the hard chalk areas of France or the soft clays of Belgium.
These miners/soldiers worked alongside other Allied tunnelling companies in the war effort.
Specialist engineers along with highly skilled miners were selected from each of the above-mentioned Australian tunnelling companies to form a unique 300 strong company which became know as the Australian Electrical and Mechanical Mining and Boring Company (nicknamed the ‘Alphabet Company’) which provided a service for all the Allied tunnelling companies in the war, operating and maintaining pumps, generators, ventilation fans and drilling equipment.
A tunnelling company’s role was essentially to mine under the enemy lines and place explosives charges which, when detonated, would blow a massive crater on the surface, claiming as many enemy lives as possible as well as inflicting considerable damage to the enemy’s surface infrastructure.
At the same time the enemy was endeavouring to do the same thing.
Meanwhile, a more intimate battle was occurring between individual opposing miners in a silent claustrophobic warfare underground where each was attempting to eliminate each other by way of a small surgical camouflet blast or a break-through to the enemy workings to engage in a terrifying hand-to-hand battle with the foe. Taking a live prisoner was a bonus.
Beneath Hill 60 was based on the war diary of Captain Oliver Holmes Woodward of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company which was responsible for protecting and eventually firing the Hill 60 and Caterpillar mines, the most important of the 19 mines that were detonated under Messines Ridge in Belgium, heralding the important battle of the same name.
Woodward was a mining engineering graduate from the Charters Towers School of Mines and was only one of four Australian Great War soldiers to receive a Military Cross with two bars.
Not only has the film been accepted as an iconic Aussie war film …. up there with Breaker Morant, Galliopi and Kokoda , it is also highly regarded in both the UK and Europe.
Spin-offs from the film include Australian Mining Corps memorials in both Australia and Belgium and an official Commemorative Centenary Medallion honouring, in particular, the contribution of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company to the Battle of Messines Ridge in Belgium on 7 June 1917.
The film also motivated memorials to the New Zealand miners in both New Zealand and France for their similar Great War efforts in true ANZAC spirit.