Friday 25 May 2007 by Craig Tibbitts. 18 comments
To Flanders Fields, 1917, Messines - Mines

Tunnellers – Hill 60

The Battle of Messines was fought along a wide frontage. Australian infantry fought on the southern end of this line near Messines village, while to the north at Hill 60 near Ypres Australian tunnellers played a vital role in the detonation of part of a series of huge mines beneath the enemy’s trenches. The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company had worked there since November 1916, extending shafts for the mines while sometimes encountering German underground works. Finally, along the whole British front, 19 mines were exploded with a devastating effect and an impact that some said they felt in London. Many of the enemy were killed, and the survivors demoralised, even before the infantry attacked.

Read more on the mines at Hill 60, Messines (PDF - 10 pages)

Read more: 'Phantom soldiers: Australian tunnellers on the Western Front, 1916-1918' by Roy MacLeod

Miners of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company excavating dug-outs in the Ypres sector. E02094

Australian Official War Artist Will Dyson visited Hill 60 where the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company had already operated for months counter-mining German tunnellers, prior to the opening of the Battle of Messines. Below are some of his impressions of that visit in drawings and lithographs.

The result was particularly deadly, for the mine was stated by the Germans to have taken up with it a whole company of Wurtumbergers...

The ground round about was strewn with pieces of iron, timber, concrete and wire ... rifles, equipment and ammunition were scattered about. The unburied bodies, rags and human bones, told tales of a series of battles... (Frank Hurley, Official Photographer)

A German pillbox which was overturned by the explosion of a mine, opposite the front, on the early morning of 7 June, just prior to the attack which opened the Battle of Messines. The soldier on the right, carrying what appears to be the Kodak Pocket Camera case over his left shoulder, is 2585 Corporal Ernest Lionel Bailey, 51st Battalion and Australian Corps Salvage AIF, who was accidentally killed in France on 17 May 1918 while gathering exhibits for the Australian War Records Section. E01320

Read article on Ernest Bailey

Wytschaete crater.  A soldier standing next to a water filled mine crater near Wytschaete, which was blown up by Australian Engineers at the commencement of the Battle of Messines . A02326


Christopher Barto

To whom it may concern - I have maintained an active interest in the Messines Mines since 2000, as a retired coal geologist who attended Syd Uni, I have been fortunate to be aware of the substantial contribution of Prof. Edgeworth David in the 'tunnelling geology effort in the Western Front', and of course more recently my old mentor, Prof. David Branagan has finally published David's biography, a substanial effort given the scope of the man's extraordinary life. In 2002 I lived in Belgium and got muddy doing my 'mines field research', spent time at IWM, collecting maps, etc, having earlier liaised with both Prof Branagan and Roy MacLeod. I would appreciate any effort to include in your AWM presentation any details of Prof David's geological war work, as I strongly believe he ensured the success of the Messines Mine Explosion, (the first chess move breaking the 2 yr stalemate!), supply of useful water and other practical sapper resources. Regards Editor's comment: Thanks for your comment Christopher, that sounds very interesting. Unfortunately I don't have time to do any additional research at present. I'm already well and truly snowed under with several research and writing projects. However, feel free to put together your own piece if you like and post it to the blog as another comment. Cheers, Craig Tibbitts

Liz Truman

I enjoyed reading the article 'Phantom Soldiers' by Roy MacLeod. My grandfather William Perry was a sapper in the 2nd Australian Tunnelling Company from Sept 1916 to 1919 and I have been doing some research on the company. On page 36 of the article there is a reference to the 2nd ATC, viz: "The 2nd ATC lost 89 dead, including twenty at a single blow at Hill 70 in November 1916." As the 2nd ATC unit diary held in the AWM does not go back as far as Nov 1916 I would be interested to know about this engagement of theirs at Hill 70. The footnote to the reference refers to a notebook of Sanderson of the 3rd ATC. Can you enlighten me? Thanks.

Editor's comment: Thanks for your comment Liz, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. While the 2nd ATC war diary does in fact go back to February 1916, for reasons unknown, this year's diaries are quite incomplete (we only hold them for Feb, Mar, Apr & July). The notebook referred to in the article is that of Major Alexander Sanderson of the 3rd ATC. It's a personal notebook in which he records those members of 3rd ATC who died during the war, but it makes no mention of anyone from 2nd ATC. I suppose the end note referred to the whole paragraph where MacLeod was talking about casualties for both companies. I can only guess the figure of 20 killed at Hill 70 was from one of the other sources mentioned in that end note. Have you checked Appendix 3 of Bean's Vol IV ? Cheers, Craig.


i find this site very interesting and educative.
please send me more information.

Editor's comment: Thanks Marnie, I'm glad you've found the site interesting. All the information we have about the exhibition is already on the blog, so I don't have anything else I could send you at present. If you want more detailed information I suggest you look at the Official History, Volume IV, which covers the AIF campaign on the Western Front during all of 1917. You can find it at any decent library, and it's also available to read on the War Memorial's website here. For a more concise account, there's also Anzac to Amiens, chapters 19-21. This is also available online here. Regards, Craig Tibbitts

Robin Sanderson

Dear Editor. I was interested in mention of Major John Sanderson: he was my grandfather and I have suitcases full of old photos ,maps, diaries, cartoons,medals (see his decorations on the left of my website -MC with bar and DSO-my father Colonel John Sanderson's medals-Burma 50 Para veteran- are on the right!)You can look up the action on Hill 70 on website googled ' hellfire corner' article.Alex was the commander of the troopship home and his brother Lauchlan received the Croix de Guerre ,MC and led the procession of Australians on a white horse at the victory parade in London.I am currently working on a book about my family's military history.Alex's grandfather was a friend of George Stephenson and was a railway pioneer in India. Incidentally my grandfather lived to 90 years and later was the chief engineer on Churchill's whitehall bunker.When I have time I can see if I have reference to Liz Turner's grandfather ie ATC 2.Perhaps I could contact her directly?Could you ask if I could have her contact details.Thanks Robin Sanderson

Robin Sanderson

Can I get a copy of the notebook for Major Alexander Sanderson MC DSO CO of the 3rd Australian tunnelling? Please advise His grandson aged 57!!!!!

Janyne Beecham

Hi there, I am after some information on the 1st Aust Tunnelling Coy, as my great grandfather Andrew Francis Beecham was there and I would like some infoemation on him. Thank you. Regards Janyne Beecham.

Steve Franklin

Hi, have read with interest the exploits of the Australian Tunnellers. I had a great-uncle who served with the Australian Electical and Mechanical Mining and Boring Company (Alphabetical Company), which is mentioned in the article. Do you have any further information on this Company - diaries etc? Regards, Steve Franklin

Michael Dickson

I am reaching information about my Great Grandfather, 3571 Spr John Bunch who servered in the 1st and 4th tunnelling Coy. I am mainly looking for unit photos. Regards

Rod Bedford

Can you confirm which Wytschaete crater was blown by Australian Engineers, as I can find no other reference, as most information mentions Hill 60 A and B crators; "Wytschaete crater. A soldier standing next to a water filled mine crater near Wytschaete, which was blown up by Australian Engineers at the commencement of the Battle of Messines . A02326"

Rob Russell

The following is a letter my grandfather wrote. He was wounded after the Battle of Messines and was subsequently moved to an French then English hospital. He wrote this from England.... [21st August 1917] J1 Ward Military Hospital Richmond Surrey England Dear Dad, Just a line to let you know that I arrived here Safe and Sound from France. I was in hospital in France for 26 days and had a good time. I suppose you heard all the rumours possible about my wounds. Well I am wounded in the fleshy part of the knees, no bones broken, or anything like that. And I can move the right leg and bend it about so it can’t be too bad. The both legs were on splints while I was in France but the “Quack” over here pulled the splint off the right leg and the stitches were taken out of both legs. I was in a German trench when I got hit at 4 oclock in the morning “At Messines”. I was through that battle that took place there on the 7th of June but never got a scratch. I suppose you are worrying a bit but; you can thank the Lord that, that shell never landed six feet back. If it had, the birds of the air would have been feeding off my flesh and a small grease spot would be on Belgium soil. So I was lucky to get wounded. One of my mates got wounded with me. The shell (it was a 5.9) made a hole 5 feet deep and 6 feet across and it landed 12 feet from us. We were laying down at the time and I was asleep. Had we been standing, perhaps I would not be writing to you now. Here are a few points why we always say a man is lucky to get wounded. He is taken away from (1) The stinking muddy wet trenches (2) The sleepless nights while he is in the front line (3) The silent choking gas you don’t know it is on you until it nearly chokes you (4) The 15 inch shells, 5 point nines, the nine point twos, the whiz-bangs, the pom-poms. His deadly “minnies” gas shells and armour piercing shells. I am afraid I deceived you over my description and life in France. I had to skite the life up. If I had not the censor would simply burn the letters and you would think, quite naturally that I had not been writing and I would not have been any the wiser. Any how, here is my description of the France I saw summed up in a few words, and every word is true. It is a stinking, dirty, rotten, lousy cesspool. Filth abounds everywhere. So is it any wonder that I was glad when I got wounded and so got out of it. Anyhow I have wrote enough about it. The very word France is nauseating to me. Here is another picture. A nice clean bed, plenty of clean clothes, no lice in them, nurses to attend to every want, and plenty of good food (chicken, fish, mince, vegetables, puddings, custards, and port wine. I think by the time you read this far you will be overjoyed that I am wounded and well away from the Hell I described to you. Anyhow Dad old chap I will not be going back and would you tell that bloody fool of an Allen that I have give him the hint time after time not to enlist. Every letter I wrote from England was advising him. Surely he will be sensible by this. Well I will now talk about something a bit cheerful. The majority of these chaps in this ward are convalescent and I will soon be hopping about. There is a lady supplies us with fags and paper so that is not bad. I will write every week while I am here & your letters are being forwarded from France. I am writing mum a letter with this one so will always know how I am getting on. It was the 24th of July that I got wounded. I have a belt of souvenirs to send to you when I can get them fixed up. Don’t forget this address No. 1426 R W Brennen Military Hospital Richmond Surrey England Well dear Dad I will conclude hoping this finds you are in the best of health. And love to all and a Merry Xmas to you I Remain your loving son Dick

Paul Murphy

Hi. I believe my grandrafther was a memebr of one of the units involved in Hill 60 tunneling. His name was Tommy Murphy, a 5ft 3" Irishman who migrated , volunteered and was sent to Galipoli and subsequentlt to Hill 60. Is there any way i can confirmvhis unit and service on the Front? Thanks. Paul Murphy


There has been a brand new book published on the Australian Tunnelling Companies by Damien Finlayson called, "Crumps and Camouflets: Australian Tunnelling Companies on the Western Front." I managed to pick up a copy of the book and have started reading it. It is extremely well written and researched and based on the small part of what I have read so far, an absolute must for anyone with relatives who served in any of the Australian Tunnelling Companies or the Australian Electrical and Mechanical Mining and Boring Company, or who has an interest in it. It goes beyond the narrow experience of Oliver Woodward, as featured in the recent movie "Beneath Hill 60" and talks of all the operations conducted by the Australians as well as sections on how the miners did their work. It also has a Roll of Honour at the back.

David Marriot

The following is an extract from my grandads memoirs ,he was Arthur Marriott 3371 L/cpl 7th city of London Reg (attached to 47th division) The land mines in those days took weeks and sometimes months to prepare. Expert engineers trained in tunnelling – usually coal miners – were doing the job of digging out the bays or cellars for holding the high explosive Aminol. Many colonials from Australia & New Zealand were engaged in the work. I, with others, have had to “sand bag” for them all night. The sand bags as they were filled were passed along the tunnel in a chain system to the mouth of the tunnel and then the bags were emptied outside and before daylight the earth was camouflaged so that enemy aircraft would not spot it, although they knew we were very close at times. In the preparation work for blowing up Hill 60, which went on for several months, I was attached to the “diggers” as they were called. We slept most of the day, usually working all night, and we had to amuse ourselves the best we could. Our favourite pastime was a delousing competition. Perhaps a dozen of us would take part and at a given signal each man would see how many lice he could catch from his body by putting his hand inside his shirt or the flies of his trousers and feel for a louse and then crack it on his mess tin lid. The one who had the most spots of blood on his lid was the winner. The one who ran the competition divided the entrance fee usually half a franc and the time allowed was three to five minutes. Living under such conditions our morale began to get very low. We were gradually being transformed from human beings to animals, perhaps not so bad because a spirit of comradeship remained with us. At a certain time in the night while we were working, the listener would come along the tunnel and dig a steel rod in the ground and place the circular earpiece near his ear to listen for vibrations from the enemy diggers. While he could hear them working he assured us that we were safe for the time being, but when the Germans stopped digging then we all had the wind up, as we had visions of being blown up. Long spells of silence made us all very nervy, so much so that a crowd of anxious faces would gather around the listener hoping he would say: “You are all right.” One night in particular was a nightmare,. We knew the Germans had stopped working and we were all on edge and one of our boys just went completely mad when his nerves finally broke and could stand it no longer. He had to be tied down until morning and was taken to hospital. About two hours after this incident there was a lot of shouting – the Germans had started digging again. I was at the top of the mine gallery passing a sand bag to the next man when there was a fall of chalk and earth in the gallery and when the dust had cleared, our diggers below were in the act of strangling two Germans who had fallen through into the gallery. The diggers called for a rope and it was thrown down to them and then we had the unpleasant task of hauling up two dead Germans feet first. This meant that their gallery was being cut out a few feet above ours so we had to seal up the gallery and blow a “Camifleur” a small amount of high explosive sufficient to block any access to our tunnels. We had the jobs of carrying boxes of Aminol to our miniature railway to be taken along to the galleries and then the boxes were placed on a sort of thrawl all round the gallery and the engineers would connect each box with a length of fuse. When the whole operation was completed on June 6, 1917 thousands of men were assembled all specially trained for this massive attack which was to start early at 3.10am on 7th June 1917

kevin murrell

I am researching my great grandfather 4807 sapper william wrathall who served with the 2nd,4th and 5th tunnelling companies from 1916 to the 7th of august 1918 when he was accidentally killed behind the lines,any photos would be of great help.

John Reading

Kevin Murrell - we have profiled William Wrathall on our website - would like to be in touch re sharing additional information.

Anthony Garcia

My Great Grandfather was Charles Edwin Mullen. He served in the second tunneling company. I am so pleased this story has come to be told, as it remained untold for too long. I seek further information ans images of the time our family members spent underground any photos would be of great help.

Belinda Hale

Hi Kevin, I have been doing a bit of my own "in their footsteps" and discovered that my grandfathers brother, my great uncle was involved in the train incident with your great grandfather William. His name was James Imrie. I never knew any of this and find it all completly amazing. Would love to get in touch.

Dr. Rob Goodfellow

My friend Peter Smith is the great nephew of the co-author of 'Tunnellers: The Story of the Tunnelling Companies', Australian-born Captain W. Grant GRIEVE. The book is still available and widely referenced. I understand Grieves (who was born in Wollongong/West Dapto) left Australia, joined the Canadians and ended up with the British. I have been able to secure a rare signed copy of the book for Peter from the UK. There is an extensive web listing for the book - and in fact the book is widley referenced in contemporary WW1 research, but there are no clues of what happened to Grieves - who I understand remined in the UK after WW1 and never returned to Australia. Can anyone assist me with this? An obituary? Photos? Links to the UK? Regards, Dr. Rob Goodfellow (PhD history).