Tunnellers Old Comrades Association

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The Tunnellers Old Comrades Association would hold an Annual Dinner on or around June 7th in Sydney, NSW to commemorate the Battle of Messines. This tradition continued until age claimed them all. [1]


The Officers of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company held a reunion at Pfahlett’s Hotel to perpetuate to the memory of the battle of Messines, June 7, 1917.
Major David, C.M.G., D.S.O., who presided, made reference to the excellent work accomplished by the Australian Tunnelling Companies not only in defensive and offensive mining operations, but also in the efficiency of the systems of deep dugouts first inaugurated by the Australian Mining Corps, and afterwards universally adopted by the Allied armies. Captain R.B. Hinder, M.C., said that he had received many letters from members of the unit unable to be present, expressing the hope that the dinner be held annually, and a motion to this effect was unanimously carried.[2]

To-day marks the sixth anniversary of the Battle of Messines, one of the most notable engagements during the war. It is especially memorable because of the part that Australian troops, and also tunnellers, played to the action.
The work of the tunnellers—and one must associate with them Professor Sir Edgeworth David, then Chief Geologist on the Western Front—is a wonderful story of daring and ingenuity when opposed by an enemy whose inventive skill, in the hope of achieving victory, lacked nothing.
In this famous battle more than 7000 prisoners were taken. It is remembered chiefly, not only because of the decisive triumph of the British forces, but also by reason of the fact that colossal mines were brought into play against the enemy. The tunnellers, Australians among them, had been working underground for more than a year. It was a moment to try the strongest men’s nerves when the big mine under Hill 60 was fired. The country for miles and miles quaked and trembled and shivered under the force of the explosion that rent the air. The explosion was said to have been heard even in distant England. It was war, and nothing had been left to chance in this fear-inspiring enterprise. The long, sullen roar of that explosion will never quite efface itself from the minds of the tunnellers.
The battle was named after a little town which was the main objective of attack. Messines lies just beyond the French border in West Flanders on the southern extremity of the Messines-Wytschaete ridge. This ridge formed the left flank buttress of the German position round the Ypres salient. On June 7, 1917, the British made an attack on a wide front in order to clear the way for a big offensive from the Ypres salient. Included in the troops employed were the New Zealanders and the Australians Third and Fourth Divisions. It was the Third Division’s first big engagement. The men did splendidly the work allotted to them, the whole of their objectives being attained.[3]

The Angel Face still hovers round the world,
And Death’s black banner is but newly furled
Australia’s sires and mothers mourn their sons
Who fell before Death’s dreaded guns.
While o’er their graves the crimson poppies grow
That redden nightly in the sunset glow,
Their spirits wait us unafraid beyond,
Bound to us closer by a living bond.
As we grow old they fairer seem to be
In Love embodied for eternity,
They left a heritage beyond all price,
It is “Earth’s progress is by sacrifice.”
The thoughts of many Australians must go back to the day of the great victory of Messines, in which the 2nd Australian Division played such a prominent part. The Australian Divisions always coveted the posts of honour, and in this battle, as in others, it was accorded them. In the battle of Messines they were the right pivot of the attack. Their left wing had to make a slight advance, but the right had to remain in those same positions which had been held for two whole years, and whose situation was accurately known to the enemy. It was subjected in the heaviest part of the enemy shelling, but it nobly resisted all efforts to be dislodged. General Plumer’s secret report, issued after the battle characterised it as primarily as an artillery battle. This is doubtless, evident to all who read at the time how the enemy front of 15 miles was barraged to a depth of two miles for six consecutive hours, making it possible for the British troops to advance to that depth over the whole front with very small losses. Seven thousand prisoners were taken, 14,000 were estimated to be killed, and British losses were about 7000 killed and wounded—small for an attacking force. About thirty tanks took part, and proved very useful in the open ground. They were, however, of no assistance among the deep dugouts centred over the whole area, which were especially a menace to the Australian divisions’ advance. If the Australian wing had failed to advance or even to hold its position, the whole of the ground might have been lost again as it was at Cambrai. The German counter-attack on the following day showed the importance of the position, as it was directed mainly on this wing. Great credit is given by General Plumer to the co-operation of all arms, but especially to the artillery. The 60-pounders created a record by taking up fresh positions behind the newly-won third German line of defence within half an hour of its being taken by the Infantry, and so being able to cover the fresh advance with greater accuracy. To General Plumer must be given the credit of clearing up the battlefield within two days of its being fought over. The dead were reverently buried. The empty cartridge and shell cases were collected into drums, and the whole area was made as normal as its shell-pitted aspect could make it. The victory had a splendid effect on the morale and spirits of the Allied armies, and conducted greatly to the confidence shown by all arms during the time of Germany’s last bid for victory, when the Allied armies never thought for a moment of defeat.[4]

A memorable event on the western front occurred on June 7, 1917, when a large portion of the German front line ceased to exist, owing to the simultaneous explosion of 19 huge mines containing 937,000lbs of the high explosive ammonal. The Australian tunnelling companies were responsible for two of these mines, and on Saturday 21 of the officers of the Australian tunnelling companies celebrated the anniversary. Five of those present had travelled over 100 miles to attend. Professor Sir Edgeworth David presided, and Professor Madsen, who had a great deal to do with the training and selection of the corps, was a guest.[5]

To-morrow will be the eighth anniversary of the Battle of Messines. On June 7, 1917 began the terrible artillery duel which extended for 15 miles along the Messines Ridge, and which resulted in the British forces advancing two miles along that front and consolidating the position preliminary to the big offensive from the Ypres Salient. The Australians held the post of honour on the right flank. The heaviest shellfire failed to dislodge them. The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Australian Divisions and the New Zealanders took part in the battle, and under fire for the first time, the 3rd acquitted themselves with glory. A feature of the offensive was the mining operations which were carried out on an unprecedented scale. Tunnellers had been engaged underground for a year, and the detonation under Hill 60 was heard even in England.
Messines was a splendid victory, and a comparatively cheap one, the British losses amounting to about 7000 killed and wounded while it is estimated that 14,000 of the enemy were killed and 7000 were taken prisoner. A feature of the operations was the splendid fashion in which General Plumer consolidated the position after the advance.[6]

To celebrate the anniversary of the Messines Ridge attack, the officers of the 18th Tunnelling Company met on Saturday night. Major J.B. Shand, V.D., M.L.A., occupied the chair, Officers from as far as Broken Hill attended.[7]

To-day is the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the famous battle of Messines. The dreadful artillery duel, which marked the opening phases of the battle, began on June 7, 1917, and extended for 15 miles along the Messines-Wytschaete ridges. The engagement resulted in the British forces advancing two miles along the front, and consolidating the position preliminary to the big offensive from the Ypres salient. The Australians distinguished themselves; they held the post of honour on the right flank, and the terrible shellfire to which they were subjected to dislodge them. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th Divisions and the New Zealanders took part in the battle, a feature of which was the explosion of 19 mines, upon the laying of which tunnellers had been engaged for a year. The colossal detonation under Hill 60 was heard even in England.
Messines was a splendid victory. The British losses amounted to 7000 killed and wounded, and it is estimated that 14,000 of the enemy were killed. The prisoners taken numbered 6400.[8]

The eleventh annual reunion of the Australian, Electrical Mechanical Mining and Boring Company, A.I.F. on Saturday night, was full of remembrances of the strenuous last two years of the war on the French front. This company, which left Australia on February 20, 1916, going straight to France under the name of the Mining Battalion, included in its personnel such expert scientists as Professor Sir Edgeworth David and Dr Loftus Hills, and worked along the whole line, in touch with the different Allied commands, and was responsible for all details connected with the technical side of the electric lighting, tunnelling, and laying of mines.
It has been the practice hitherto to hold a launch picnic as the reunion on the Sunday nearest to the anniversary of the date of sailing, which would have been yesterday, but, owing to general depression, it was decided on this occasion to hold a modest smoke concert and supper on Saturday night. The evening was spent in the discussion of incidents connected with the 24 engagements in which the company took part, including Hill 60, Messines, Loos, Wilsche, and La Bassee,
Earlier in the evening members assembled in Martin-place, and the president (Lieutenant G.W Norfolk, M.C.) laid a wreath on the Cenotaph. [9]

The first combined reunion of all members of the Australian Tunnelling Companies and the electrical, mechanical, and boring company, was held at Sargent’s, Market-street, after the procession. It took the form of a dinner, at which speeches were not permitted. Old mates of war days got together, remembered their fallen comrades and talked of the days in the trenches.
Success attended the first representative reunion of the members of the original Mining Company, at Sargent’s, Market-street. The company included Nos 1, 2, and 3 divisions of the Tunnelling Company, and the Australian electrical, mining, and boring companies. The committee decided that, although members of the company were drawn from many States, and were consequently scattered throughout Australia, a similar reunion should be held next year.[10]

Memories of war days and the comradeship of the trenches were revived when survivors of the tunnelling sections of the Australian Mining Battalion were entertained by the head-quarters’ company at the Junior Red Cross Rooms, George-street, city, on Saturday evening.
Formed at the instigation of the late Professor Sir Edgeworth David, the Mining Battalion, on arrival in France, was split into four sections which operated separately along the western front from Nieuport, on the Belgian coast, to Vimy Ridge. Headquarters’ company, consisting of experts and technicians, was officially styled the Australian Electrical, Mechanical, Mining and Boring Company, but soon became more popularly known amongst Diggers as the Alphabeticals.” Non-expert members of the Mining Battalion were absorbed into three tunnelling companies, and it was to the returned members of these sections that the hand of fellowship was extended by headquarters’ company on Saturday to celebrate it 15th Annual Reunion. Major Shand, M.L.A. presided over the gathering, which mustered 100 strong.[11]

The three Australian Tunnelling Companies and the A.E.M.M. and B. Company will hold their annual reunion at Sargent’s immediately after the Anzac Parade. The hon. Secretary is Mr D. Royle, Imperial Service Club.[12]

Officers of the Australian Tunnelling Companies and E.M. and B. Company will hold their 18th annual reunion at the Imperial Service Club, Barrack-street, at 7 p.m. to-morrow. The speakers will include the Official War Historian (Dr C.E.W. Bean) and Brigadier-General Goddard.[13]

Epic of War Recalled.
The triumph of the allied tunnelling companies during a critical period of the war was the keynote of the speeches delivered at the annual reunion of the Tunnellers' Old Comrades' Association at the Imperial Service Club, Barnck-street, last night, So that many who had participated In the work at Messines might in some way associate themselves with the function the speeches were broadcast Major Shand the Government whip who was a Quartermaster in France, presided.
In proposing the toast of "Fallen Comrades' he said they were celebrating that memorable event in which skill, patience, courage, and endurance achieved its object on the eventful morning of June 7, 1917. when Captain Oliver Woodward pressed the button and exploded the mines under the famed Hill 60 on the western front That crowning event added lustre to the lecords of the brave and indomitable men of the Australian Imperial Forces. ' We recall the past," he said, "and bring into this wide circle of comradeship the memories of those who answered the call and passed the torch to us to carry on Since our last reunion our memories are turned to him who was our guide, philosopher, and friend I refer to Professor Sir Edgeworth David, who when the call of Empire sounded-and at an age far beyond the meridian of life-stepped forward and shared with us those days of peril anxiety, and difficulty. He has left in our hearts the remembrance of one whose nobility of character and love for his fellow man will remain with us till our travelling days are over "
Dr. C E W Bean also paid a tribute to the great leader who had been with them last year.
That morning l8 years ago, he continued they had stood on the verge of a great battle knowing thev were entering it with one factor immensely in their favour They knew what the Germans in their battered trenches a few hundred yards away did not know-that during the previous 18 months British, Canadian and Australian miners had driven deep beneath those trenches a series of 19 immense mines which were, at that moment, filled with up to 100 tons of explosives each The German infantry on most of the Messines front had been assured by their engineering staff that active mining there had long since ceased, and even at Hill 60 Lieut Colonel Fusslein the German in command of the mines had assured the general staff that the Allied miners were completely beaten. Dr Bean described how the mines "went up and the New Zealanders and the Australian Third Division to the north went forward and the battle of Messines was won.
"It was one of the most thrilling and satisfying events In the war," said Dr Bean, "a day of complete victory The Germans had been out-planned, out-dug, and out-maneuvered "
Dr Bean added that if one-tenth of the energy, determination, and ingenuity put into the waging of war was devoted to avoiding it, the miners all over the world would be in no fear during our lifetime of having to turn their knowledge and skill to the task of blow- ing each other up.[14]

The 18th annual reunion of the Australian Electrical, Mechanical, Mining and Boring Company will be held on February 27. It will take the form of a launch outing to Middle Harbour. Members of the tunnelling companies are invited. A wreath will be placed on the Cenotaph at 9.30 a.m. sharp.[15]

Also See

1st Tunnelling Company


Australian Mining Corps



  1. tunnellers.net/bits___pieces/reunions_newspaper_notices.doc, accessed 05 January 2014.
  2. Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 1920.
  3. Sydney Morning Herald, 07 June 1923.
  4. Sydney Morning Herald, 07 June 1924.
  5. Sydney Morning Herald, 10 June 1924.
  6. Sydney Morning Herald, 06 June 1925.
  7. Sydney Morning Herald, 07 June 1926.
  8. Sydney Morning Herald, 07 June 1927.
  9. Sydney Morning Herald, 23 February 23 1931.
  10. Sydney Morning Herald, 26 April 1934.
  11. Sydney Morning Herald, 25 February 1935.
  12. Sydney Morning Herald, 03 April 1935.
  13. Sydney Morning Herald, 06 June 1935.
  14. Sydney Morning Herald, 08 June 1935.
  15. Sydney Morning Herald, 21 February 1938.

--Cgervasoni (talk) 23:35, 5 January 2015 (AEDT)