The Lochnagar mine was dug before the 1916 Battle of the Somme, of the First World War. The mine was dug by the Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers under a German field fortification known as Schwabenhöhe (Swabian Height), in the front line, south of the village of La Boisselle in the Somme département of France. The mine was named after Lochnagar Street, the British trench from which the gallery was driven. It was one of eight large and eleven small mines that were placed beneath the German lines on the British section of the Somme front. The Lochnagar mine was sprung at 7:28 a.m. on 1 July 1916, the First day on the Somme. The crater was captured and held by British troops but the attack on either flank was defeated by German small-arms and artillery fire, except on the extreme right flank and just south of La Boisselle, north of the new crater. The crater has been preserved as a memorial, where a service is held on 1 July each year.
French and German military operations began on the Somme in September 1914 and after attempts to resume offensive warfare in October, both sides fortified defensive lines and reduced their attacks to local operations and raids. On 17 December, a French attack captured the La Boisselle cemetery, which was at the west end of a German salient at the village. The French had sapped forward for several weeks and a shortage of artillery ammunition had left the Germans unable to stop French progress. When the attack came the French were only 15 metres (16 yd) from the German front line and then established an advanced post only 3 metres (3.3 yd) away. French attacks in late December supported by huge quantities of artillery-fire, forced the Germans back from the cemetery and the Granathof by 24 December, against which German counter-attacks on 26 December failed.
Fighting continued in no man's land at the west end of La Boisselle, where the opposing lines were 200 yards (180 m) apart, even during lulls along the rest of the Somme front. On the night of 8/9 March, a German sapper inadvertently broke into French mine gallery, which was found to have been charged with explosives; a group of volunteers took 45 nerve racking minutes to dismantle the charge and cut the firing cables. From April 1915 – January 1916, 61 mines were sprung around the Granathof, some loaded with 20,000–25,000 kilograms (44,000–55,000 lb) of explosives. The French mine workings were taken over when the British moved into the Somme front. On 24 July 1915, the 174th Tunnelling Company established its headquarters at Bray, taking over some 66 shafts at Carnoy, Fricourt, Maricourt and La Boisselle. No man's land, just south-west of La Boisselle was very narrow, at one point about 50 yards (46 m) wide and had become pockmarked by many chalk craters.
Elaborate precautions were taken to preserve secrecy, since no continuous front line trench ran through the area opposite the west end of La Boisselle and the British front line. The area was known to the British as the Glory Hole (see map) and was defended by posts near the mine shafts. The underground war continued with offensive mining to destroy the opponents' strong points and defensive mining to destroy tunnels, which were 30–120 feet (9.1–36.6 m) long. Around La Boisselle, the Germans dug defensive transverse tunnels about 80 feet (24 m) long, parallel to the front line. On 19 November 1915, the 179th Tunnelling Company commander, Captain Henry Hance, estimated that the Germans were 15 yards (14 m) away and ordered the mine chamber to be loaded with 2,700 kilograms (6,000 lb) of explosives, which was completed by midnight on 20/21 November. At 1:30 a.m., the Germans blew the charge, filling the remaining British tunnels with carbon monoxide. The right and left tunnels collapsed and it was later found that the German explosion had detonated the British charge.[a]
The mines at La Boisselle were planted at the end of galleries dug by the 179th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers, on either side of the salient around La Boisselle and were intended to destroy German positions and create crater lips, to block German enfilade fire along no man's land. The Germans had fortified the cellars of ruined houses and cratered ground made a direct assault on the village impossible. To assist the attack, the British placed two mines, known as Y Sap and Lochnagar, on either flank. The Y Sap mine was located to the north of La Boisselle, and the Lochnagar mine to the south – see map.
The 185th Tunnelling Company started work on the Lochnagar mine on 11 November 1915 and on 4 February 1916, 18 members of the 185th Tunnelling Company were killed in a German camouflet explosion near the British three-level mine system, starting from Inch Street, La Boisselle, the deepest level being just above the water table at around 100 feet (30 m). The tunnels were handed over to the 179th Tunnelling Company in March 1916. Other tunnelling units involved in the Battle of the Somme were the 174th, 178th, 181st, 183rd and 252nd Tunnelling companies. For silence the tunnellers used bayonets with spliced handles and worked barefoot on a floor covered with sandbags. Flints were carefully prised out of the chalk and laid on the floor and if the bayonet was manipulated two-handed, an assistant caught the dislodged material. Spoil was placed in sandbags and passed hand-by-hand, along a row of miners sitting on the floor and stored along the side of the tunnel, later to be used to tamp the charge. The tunnellers also dug a gallery across no man's land to a point close to the Lochnagar mine.
The Lochnagar mine consisted of two chambers with a shared access tunnel (see map). The shaft was sunk in the communication trench called Lochnagar Street. It was probably the first deep incline shaft, which sloped 1:2–1:3 to a depth of about 95 feet (29 m) – see map. It was begun 300 feet (91 m) behind the British front line and 900 feet (270 m) away from the German front line. In the inclined shaft, about 50 feet (15 m) below ground, a gallery was driven towards the German lines. When about 135 feet (41 m) from the Schwabenhöhe, the tunnel was forked to form two branches and the end of each branch was enlarged to form a chamber for the explosives, the chambers being about 60 feet (18 m) apart and 52 feet (16 m) deep – see map. When finished, the access tunnel for the Lochnagar mine was 4.5 by 2.5 feet (1.37 m × 0.76 m) and had been excavated at a rate of about 18 inches (46 cm) per day, until about 1,030 feet (310 m) long, with the galleries beneath the Schwabenhöhe. The mine was loaded with 60,000 pounds (27,000 kg) of Ammonal, divided in two charges of 36,000 pounds (16,000 kg) and 24,000 pounds (11,000 kg). As the chambers were not big enough to hold all the explosives, the tunnels that branched to form the 'Y' were also filled with explosives. The longer branch was 60 feet (18 m) long, the shorter was 40 feet (12 m) long. The tunnels did not quite reach the German front line but the blast dislodged enough material to form a 15 feet (4.6 m) high rim and bury nearby trenches.
The tunnel for the Y Sap mine started in the British front line near where it crossed the Albert to Bapaume road, but because of German underground defences it could not be dug in a straight line. About 500 yards (460 m) were dug into no man's land, before it turned right for about another 500 yards (460 m). About 40,000 pounds (18,000 kg) of Ammonal was placed in the chamber beneath the Y Sap mine. The Lochnagar and the Y Sap mines were overcharged to ensure that large rims were formed from the disturbed ground. Two smaller mines of 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) each, were planted from galleries dug from Inch Street Trench, intended to wreck German tunnels. Communication tunnels were also dug for use immediately after the first attack but were little used in the end. The mines were laid without interference by German miners but as the explosives were placed, German miners could be heard below Lochnagar and above the Y Sap mine.
The Lochnagar mine was detonated at 7:28 a.m. on 1 July 1916, the First day on the Somme. The explosion was initiated by Captain James Young of the 179th Tunnelling Company, who pressed the switches and observed that the firing had been successful. The two charges of the Lochnagar mine created a vast, smooth sided, flat bottom crater about 220 feet (67 m) in diameter excluding the lip and 450 feet (140 m) across. It obliterated 300–400 feet (91–122 m) of German dug-outs. Most of the 5th Company of Reserve Infantry Regiment 110 and the trenches nearby were destroyed.[b] The Lochnagar mine lay on the sector assaulted by the Grimsby Chums, a Pals battalion (10th Battalion, The Lincolnshire Regiment). The infantry of the British 34th Division, which was composed of Pals battalions from the north of England, attacked the positions on either side of La Boisselle, of Reserve Infantry Regiment 110 of the German 28th Reserve Division, mainly recruited from Baden.
When the main attack began at 7:30 a.m., the Grimsby Chums occupied the crater and began to fortify the eastern lip, which dominated the vicinity and the advance continued to the Grüner Stellung (second position), where it was stopped by the 4th Company, which then counter-attacked and forced the British back to the crater. During the day German artillery fired into Sausage Valley and in the afternoon began systematically to shell areas and then fire bursts of machine-gun fire to catch anyone who moved. German artillery also began to bombard the crater, where wounded and lost men sought shelter, particularly those from Sausage Valley to the south of the village. British artillery began to fire on the crater, which led to shell bursts on both slopes, leaving the men inside with nowhere to hide. A British aircraft flew low overhead and a soldier waved a dead man's shirt, at which the aeroplane flew away and the British shelling stopped.
At Boisselle the earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up in the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet (1,200 m). There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris. A moment later came the second mine. Again the roar, the upflung machine, the strange gaunt silhouette invading the sky. Then the dust cleared and we saw the two white eyes of the craters. The barrage had lifted to the second-line trenches, the infantry were over the top, the attack had begun.
as aircraft from 3 Squadron flew over the III Corps area, observers reported that the 34th Division had reached Peake Wood on the right flank, increasing the size of the salient which had been driven into the German lines north of Fricourt but that the villages of La Boisselle and Ovillers had not fallen. On 3 July, air observers noted flares lit in the village during the evening, which were used to plot the positions reached by British infantry.
The tunnel was used to contact troops near the new crater and during the afternoon, troops from the 9th Cheshires of the 19th Division began to move forward and a doctor was sent from the Field Ambulance during the night. By 2:50 a.m. on 2 July, most of the 9th Cheshires had reached the crater and the German trenches adjacent, from which they repulsed several German counter-attacks during the night and the morning. On the evening of 2 July, the evacuation of wounded began and on 3 July, troops from the crater and the vicinity pushed forward to the south-east, occupying a small area against slight opposition.
William Orpen, an official war artist, saw the mine crater in 1916 while touring the Somme battlefield, collecting subjects for paintings and described a wilderness of chalk dotted with shrapnel. John Masefield also visited the Somme, while preparing The Old Front Line (1917), in which he also described the area around the crater as dazzlingly white and painful to look at. After the war the Café de la Grand Mine was built nearby; after the Second World War, many of the smaller craters were filled but the Lochnagar mine crater remained. Attempts to fill it in were resisted and the land was eventually purchased by an Englishman, Richard Dunning to ensure its preservation, after he read The Old Front Line and was inspired to buy a section of the former front line.
Dunning made more than 200 enquiries about land sales in the 1970s and was sold the crater. The site had been used by cross-country motorbikes and for fly tipping but Dunning erected a memorial cross on the rim of the crater in 1986, using reclaimed timber from a Gateshead church; the cross was struck by lightning shortly after its installation and was repaired with metal banding. The site attracts about 200,000 visitors a year and there is an annual memorial service on 1 July, to commemorate the detonation of the mine and the British, French and German war dead, when poppy petals are scattered into the crater.
- The wrecked tunnels were gradually re-opened but about thirty bodies remain beneath La Boisselle.
- The Lochnagar and Y Sap mines were the largest mines ever detonated. The sound of the blast was considered the loudest man-made noise in history, with reports suggesting it was heard in London. The mine detonations on the Somme were surpassed in 1917, by the mines in the Battle of Messines.
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