Barngates’ Tunnellers Dark Mild is a commemorative brew dedicated to the tunnellers of the First World War and, in particular, William Hackett V.C.
Tunnelling companies were specialist units of the Corps of Royal Engineers within the British Army, formed to dig attacking tunnels under enemy lines during the First World War.
The stalemate situation in the early part of the war led to the deployment of tunnel warfare. After the first German Empire attacks on 21 December 1914, through shallow tunnels underneath no man’s land and exploding ten mines under the trenches of the Indian Sirhind Brigade, the British began forming suitable units.
In February 1915, eight Tunnelling Companies were created and operational in Flanders from March 1915. By mid-1916, the British Army had around 25,000 trained tunnellers, mostly volunteers taken from coal mining communities. Almost twice that number of “attached infantry” worked permanently alongside the trained miners acting as ‘beasts of burden’.
From the spring of 1917 the whole war became more mobile, with grand offensives at Arras, Messines andPasschendaele. There was no longer a place for a tactic that depended upon total stasis for its employment. The tactics and counter-tactics required deeper and deeper tunnelling, hence more time and more stable front lines were also required, so offensive and defensive military mining largely ceased. Underground work continued, with the tunnellers concentrating on deep dugouts for troop accommodation, a tactic used particularly in the Battle of Arras.
William Hackett VC (1873 – 1916) was an English recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.
For most conspicuous bravery when entombed with four others in a gallery owing to the explosion of an enemy mine. After working for 20 hours, a hole was made through fallen earth and broken timber, and the outside party was met. Sapper Hackett helped three of the men through the hole and could easily have followed, but refused to leave the fourth, who had been seriously injured, saying: “I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first.”
Meantime, the hole was getting smaller, yet he still refused to leave his injured comrade. Finally, the gallery collapsed, and though the rescue party worked desperately for four days the attempt to reach the two men failed. Sapper Hackett well knowing the nature of sliding earth, the chances against him, deliberately gave his life for his comrade”.
—The London Gazette, dated 4 August 1916
It’s hard to imagine what life must have been like for these guys – living with the daily threat of hand to hand combat with their German counterparts as tunnels collapsed. Brave doesn’t even come close.