It was just after 12.30 am on the 7th June 1917 when Captain Oliver Woodward of the First Australian Tunnelling Company settled into his firing dugout and anxiously began his final checks. He had less than three hours to wait, but already he could feel the sweat trickling down the length of his spine and disappearing into the cotton waist band around the top of his corduroy breaches. Although it was mid-summer, a cold chill of fear wracked his body. He looked down. In the faint glow of the lightproof dugout, he could see his hands. They were rock steady. He trusted his hands.
He looked about him. The dugout had been well prepared for this important moment. A small electric bulb cast a yellow light across the faces, side lit and angular, like him tense and frozen in concentration. Two candles added to the meagre glow, a wisp of grey spoke spiralling up and disappearing into the gloom of the low ceiling. The light cast deep, dark shadows, the shadows of two officers from his unit plus a British Brigadier. All of them motionless, waiting, their breathing imperceptible, listening, thinking and focused. In the darkened corners of the dugout outside the ring of light, some tunnellers; men of his unit silent and expectant, now redundant, their job done.
Oliver Woodward checked himself. His mind was focused and clear; clearer than he could remember for some time. He thought through the details of the two massive explosive charges he had the responsibility to detonate: in the Hill 60 chamber, 45,700 pounds of ammonal and another 7,500 pounds of gun cotton; about 24 metric tonnes in today’s terms. In the other, the Caterpillar mine, another 70,000 pounds of ammonal or 32 tonnes. Both galleries had been stacked carefully - he’d ensured that. Then the detonators; laid in series with three fail-safe back-ups that he had also supervised the installation of. The long electrical leads and the instantaneous fuse he’d played out, back to this firing point and the testing: yes, the endless testing, the resistant tests and the very final continuity tests. All looked good. And he went back over in his mind the firing procedure, but still wondered again would it all go off.
He had not long to wait.
Spread across ten kilometres of front, 100,000 men lay on their tapes, the start lines for the attack along the Messines ridge while another 115,00 provided support. They too were sweating and fearful of the terrible day of fighting they know was ahead, but they had different concerns on their mind and wondered at their chances.
At 1:15am, Oliver Woodward again tested the resistance. He needed to know that a very weak current was completing the circuit: going from his darkened dugout, down, down, deep into the ground, along the damp muddy tunnel, under the tightly packed sandbags that formed the tamping and on to the gallery packed with explosives and there, tickle the detonator, not enough to fire it, but just enough to show it was alive and connected. He trusted nothing and no one, not even himself. All he trusted was his Galvanometer and the Wheatstone Bridge he held in his muddy hands that indicated that the leads were sound, the current was getting though and the circuit complete. The only other worry was the Germans.
The listeners had heard them. He’d heard them. Their relentless digging. The nearly imperceptible bite of their tools into the grey-blue clay; the oiled rattle of their winch and the quiet bump of their bucket as it landed at the bottom of their shaft. They were edging closer. Woodward had calculated their progress – he knew their work rate and he was listening, ever listening. It was touch and go. He had withdrawn his closest listeners from near the charged gallery at the last minute to complete the tamping, but had calculated that the Germans were only two metres from his system. With luck, they would never make it.
But the only way he would know if his calculation on the Germans progress was incorrect and if his plotting and reckoning was wrong, was to see the circuit broken and the meagre current fail to light the tiny globe and boomerang back. All that was left was to repeat the testing as rapidly as possible. He checked the leads, each one in turn. They all proved intact. Months, even years of work had come to this and many lives had been lost; tunnellers, good men, his men, in the dark, dank suffocating tunnels below this tortured hill. It is now up to him as their work was done.
An hour before zero, the troops guarding the mine entrances were withdrawn. They are counted out and sent to their posts. The strain and tension was intense and again Woodward wondered if the leads stretching back to the front and under the German front line were properly connected. Too late to check. Forty five minutes and the last resistance check was completed. It was now in the hands of chance and of course the Germans.
Finally, he carefully attached the leads to the small hand held igniter.
Outside all was ominously quiet apart from the odd shell falling far behind the lines, searching out German fatigue parties struggling up to the front. All Woodward could hear was his heart, pounding – pounding in his chest and reverberating in his ears. Then he heard the watch, ticking an off-beat rhythm as though in competition with his heart – the watch that was to decide the moment… the second for this devastating blast.
The watch ticked on…...tick…tick …TICK…TICK.
“Five minutes to go” breaks the silence. Woodward again tested the leads in his firing position. All is ready.
“Three minutes to go” an authoritative voice of Brigadier-General Lambert commands.
Woodward looked sideways at the two officers to his right, an exploder at their feet in case the electrical charge fails.
“One minute to go” calls Lambert.
Woodward’s hand moved into position on the exploder, his fingers slowly gripping the cold brass handle. He feels the sweat as he tightens his grip. The silence is deafening.
10 seconds… then 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, - FIRE!!
Down went the firing switch and from deep beneath the earth came a low rumble. His work was done. The charges had fired.
The detonation of the mines at Hill 60 and the Caterpillar, were just two of nineteen massive mines blown by the British along ten kilometres of frontline around the Belgium village of Messines at 3.10am on the 7th June 1917. As many as 10,000 Germans died in the combined blast, heard across England and as far away as Dublin. By the end of that day, the British had advanced nearly six kilometres and were claiming their best and most successful day in the field up until that time in the war. The Battle of Messines opened the front and ushered in the next great battle; that of the Third Battle of Ypres or as it is more commonly known, simply “Passchendaele”.
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