The little-known story of the Waihi tunnellers

DENISE IRVINE
Last updated 05:00 02/08/2014
World War I Waihi tunnellers
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

FAREWELL: Waihi tunnellers are farewelled at their town’s train station as they leave to go into camp in Auckland.

Noeline Herrick
DENISE IRVINE/Fairfax NZ
BADGES OF HONOUR: Noeline Herrick with replica World War I medals of her stepfather Jack Norris, of Waihi, a World War I tunneller. The Distinguished Conduct Medal is at left.

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Noeline Herrick says her stepfather was a great storyteller, and he could certainly tell a few whoppers about his fishing exploits at Tanners Point, where he had a bach and a boat.   

Tanners Point is south of Waihi, where Jack Norris was a gold miner. The story that Jack didn't tell Noeline was probably his biggest of all.  

The one about the years when he took his mining knowledge to northern France during World War I, serving with the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company, working underground with pick and shovel  to create a labyrinth of tunnels and caverns used to move and hide thousands of Allied troops on the Western Front. It is a method of warfare used from the time of medieval sieges to the modern-day tactics of Hamas in Gaza.    

Jack also didn't talk about the silver Distinguished Conduct Medal he was awarded in 1917 for courageous action in a deadly situation.

The citation for Lance-Corporal Jack Norris' medal tells the story in brief: ''For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He displayed great coolness and courage when he and his party were entombed in a gallery. There was a great risk of the workings being discovered, but he succeeded in getting his party dug out undetected.'' 

It would have been good to hear Jack's version of events, no doubt more colourful than military language. Some entries in his wartime diary point to the hardship and risks (see end of story).   

Jack is long gone, like all the other tunnellers he worked with in a faraway land, in a faraway war that this month is a century old. Some of his comrades are buried in France. More than 80 New Zealand tunnellers were either killed, or died later from war injuries and associated ill health.  

Many of them came home suffering the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, and other health and emotional problems, the legacy of their secret war. A lot of them didn't make old bones. Ten men committed suicide, the first in 1922 and the last on Anzac Day 1931.  

Their stories could have been buried with them. They were for a long time. But in recent years, Waihi Heritage Vision, a group dedicated to researching and honouring local history, has delved into the unsung underground work of its town's miners during World War I.    

It has shone a light on a crew from Waihi, and other parts of New Zealand, who worked deep in the earth of northern France to keep Allied troops safe, and also delivered death and destruction to the enemy via counter-mining. At great risk to themselves.   

Today, we tell their story. Or scratch the surface of it (no pun intended), because it is a story of many parts. Jack Norris may have told it better, if he'd had a mind to.      

Jack actually did better than many of his comrades. Although he was hospitalised overseas with pulmonary tuberculosis, he came home to Waihi, went back to the mine, married Noeline's mother, Gladys, and helped her raise her young daughter. Jack also had two children by an earlier marriage.   

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Noeline was 4 when she met Jack. She called him Pop,  she loved him dearly, remembers his kindness, his big heart, and her happy home life in a small miner's cottage where the landmark Cornish Pumphouse is now sited in Waihi. Jack died in 1965, aged 73.   

''He looked after me all my childhood,'' Noeline says. ''He didn't dwell on his wartime experiences, that just wasn't what he did.''      

Noeline, 83, Waihi born and bred, lives close to the town's main street with husband Len Herrick. She has a replica set of Jack's medals, the Distinguished Conduct Medal among them. She regularly visits Jack's grave at Waihi Cemetery; Len keeps it neat and tidy. She's grateful to Waihi Heritage Vision for providing her with more information on her stepfather, more than he ever told her.   

And as Noeline says, ''there's nobody left to ask now, none of his generation are left to tell us things. They're all gone''. So in lieu of this, Waihi Heritage Vision has stepped into the breach, working with the men's descendants, gathering and sharing information, getting the story out on a website (nzetc.co.nz) and on Facebook,  and it is planning an impressive New Zealand tunnellers' monument at Waihi's Gilmour Lake.    

The monument will be unveiled in March 2016, to mark the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the tunnellers on the Western Front, in France.

RESCUE TRAINING: New Zealand World War I tunnellers doing mines rescue training with a pure oxygen apparatus that operated on the same principle as modern day gear. Photo: Published in J. C. Neill, The New Zealand Tunnelling Company, Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd, 1922

 

Kit Wilson chairs Waihi Heritage Vision, and his wife, researcher Sue Baker Wilson, brought the tunnellers to his attention some years back when she first learned about them.   

Says Wilson: ''The story was essentially unknown. People didn't think miners went to war because mining was an essential service. But the more we delved into it, the more we learned, and the more incredible it was.''    

He says  they were the first New Zealanders on the Western Front, they were the first unit to record a death there, and they were the last off the front, as many stayed after the war to do building and repairs.   

They worked in extreme conditions, sometimes in waist-deep water and mud, they risked being gassed, shelled and buried underground. They were often viewed as noncombatants, but Wilson says there were times when they fought the enemy underground with picks and shovels.   

He is moved by their contribution; he still sees the mark they made in Waihi. ''You can stand on the Martha pit rim, you can look at the pit walls, and you can see the remnants of the tunnels where the old-timers worked.''   

By the time the tunnellers came home from France, the public was war-weary, the appetite for welcoming parades had faded. The men slipped back into civilian life, to their families and jobs, and no special memorial was ever erected to honour them in New Zealand.    

Their back story starts in September 1915, when the Imperial Government asked New Zealand to form an Engineers Tunnelling Company to join other companies from Britain and the Dominions to do underground work in France. 

New Zealand was widely canvassed for volunteers with such skills, drawing men from the Thames-Coromandel goldfields, Huntly, the West Coast and elsewhere. A report in the Ohinemuri Gazettenf on September 27, 1915, details an address to 300 Waihi miners by recruiting officer Major Browne, who outlined the pay and conditions that would apply to volunteers.   

As the first stepped forward, the major thanked them, and said to the rest, ''now, come along, boys. Here's your chance. You are going to do your little bit for your King and country to see the world, and have an experience that will rebound to your own credit and that of the country from which you have sprung''.  

The Gazette records that the major's appeal brought forward half a dozen more volunteers, and to the onlookers it was clear that there were several others anxious yet undecided. ''Come along, boys,'' said the major again. ''Waihi's reputation is at stake, and I am quite sure that in view of past experiences Waihi will not fail us.''  

Waihi didn't fail the major; about 90 Tunnelling Company members have been identified with Waihi connections, second only to Auckland's contribution. Around 1300 men served the company in France; this number included reinforcements transferred from other units during the war.    

The Kiwi tunnellers were described in another newspaper report as being strong and hardy. ''These were no boys playing at war, but mature men, hard of muscle, hand and face.'' Many of them were in fact middle-aged, they were often married with children, their skills were more important than their status.   

They had some training in England - it was reported that they did not take kindly to drill - and the bulk of them reached the Western Front in March 1916. They worked first at the foot of Vimy Ridge, near the city of Arras, doing counter-mining. They would dig a long shaft under the German trench system, dig out a bigger cave at the end of the tunnel, pack it with explosives, get the hell out of there, and blow it up. The carbon monoxide created by the blast killed the enemy in nearby tunnels and beyond. 

The Germans were doing the same thing. It was a dangerous contest to see who got to the end first, who filled the end cave first with explosives. The Kiwi tunnellers had a reputation for digging at three times the rate of the German tunnellers and repeatedly won the race. 

With a big Allied push flagged for April 1917, the Kiwis began their underground work at Arras ahead of the attack. There were huge underground chalkstone caverns in this area. The plan was to connect them and open up subterranean 17th century quarries, to develop a 20-kilometre  or more system to house troops underground, so that when the battle kicked off the men would emerge (in good condition) to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting Germans. 

The tunnellers were joined for a time by men from the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, and then members of the New Zealand Infantry. They were assisted by British Army personnel. To help orientation as they worked, the Kiwis marked the caverns with placenames from home: Russell, Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson and more. These names are still there.  

The caves were kitted out with decent facilities, including a hospital and operating theatre. It is believed that 30,000 men slept one or more nights in the caves.  Hauraki District Mayor John Tregidga visited Arras in 2009 on a private trip to France with wife Evelyn. He'd become aware of the tunnellers' history through Waihi Heritage Vision.   

Local dignitaries organised a ceremony for his visit, he laid a wreath at a memorial unveiled in 2007 to New Zealand tunnellers who lost their lives in Arras, and he toured the museum, Carriere Wellington, which incorporates parts of the tunnel system, opened in 2008. The museum takes its name from  a former underground quarry labelled Wellington by the Kiwis. 

John Tregidga saw the Kiwi placenames, saw where the men worked. ''It is a totally different world. It was the extent of the tunnelling that surprised me,'' he says, ''the sheer amount of it. It was a moving experience, and it is a story the majority of New Zealanders don't know about.''   

The dogged tunnellers got their job done in time for the Battle of Arras, which began on April 9, 1917. The Allies made some gains, were unable to achieve a breakthrough, there were huge casualties on both sides. Later, the Kiwis turned to bridge-building in France, before they eventually returned home.

Many paid a high price for their service. Apart from the deaths and injuries, some suffered residual problems from being gassed, some suffered post-traumatic shock, some had marital problems, didn't fit back into their families after the war.     

Their war history was largely lost to younger generations of their families. Waihi Heritage Vision has worked on that too; the information it has uncovered has almost restored long-gone men to those who came after them.   

DEMONSTRATION: Troy Hargreaves, Newmont Waihi Gold’s mines rescue team leader, demonstrates breathing apparatus to Petrena Thomson, centre, and Sally Grindlay, descendants of World War I tunnellers who would have used equipment less sophisticated, but following similar principles.

Petrena Thomson, from Tauranga, and Sally Grindlay, from Waihi Beach, are two such women now much more aware of  their tunneller ancestors. They are in Waihi on a Wednesday morning to talk about how important this recent knowledge is to them, and how they can now pass it on to others in their respective families.    

Petrena's great-uncle, William Mannix, a Waihi miner, worked underground in Arras. He was  gassed, he returned home and married after the war. He died in February 1919, aged 26. He didn't live long enough to meet his son, William, named after him and born a week after his dad's death. Mannix's wife died 18 months' later; young William was raised by his mother's family, and was killed in the Western Desert during World War II.   

Petrena has recently found her great-uncle's grave at Waihi Cemetery. She's been to this cemetery many times before and didn't know he was buried there. ''It would have been so easy to have visited it,'' she says, ''I just didn't know.''  William Mannix is one of 13 former World War I tunnellers in Waihi Cemetery.   

Sally Grindlay's uncle, William Capill, was another tunneller gassed underground in Arras. Sally is interested in family history and William Capill came to her attention a couple of years ago. Her mother's cousin had a postcard sent by William from France, but Sally didn't realise the significance of it, and the tunnelling connection, at the time. ''It all clicked when we got his military record.''   

William Capill had four children at the time he volunteered. He and wife Minnie divorced in 1924, with Minnie detailing a number of difficulties between them. On his discharge from the army in 1920 (he was in his late 30s), he was described as being of good character. William moved to Auckland and died there in 1954.   

Petrena and Sally get a small glimpse of what their tunnellers faced when they meet Troy Hargreaves and Dave Oliver from Newmont Waihi Gold, both members of  the company's mines rescue team.      

The rescue team  has as part of its   kit a BG4, a breathing apparatus used in an irrespirable (non-breathable) atmosphere, where there may be fine dust, smoke, toxic gases, diesel fumes, and less than 18 per cent oxygen. The BG4 works like an artificial lung, it recycles air, and enables people in toxic environments to breathe independently of surrounding air.   

It is, of course, more sophisticated than the apparatus used by the World War I tunnellers, but not too dissimilar.  Roy and Dave have a photograph of some of the old tunnellers on their noticeboard, wearing the vintage apparatus during mine rescue training in France. The same principles apply, they say.     

They demonstrate the modern-day apparatus and they reckon it would have been no picnic in the caverns of Arras.    

Afterwards, the women visit William Mannix's grave at Waihi Cemetery, then the Cornish Pumphouse in town, the Waihi mining landmark that the old-timers would have known. In March 2016, a memorial to the Kiwi tunnellers will be unveiled in Waihi, and in 2017, a new memorial will be erected in Arras.   

The men who fought the underground war, who were known as real hard grafters on the Western Front, will be well-honoured. Their story will be more widely known, even if it's maybe not quite as Jack Norris and others might have told it.  

Historical information from nzetc.co.nz.

To contact Waihi Heritage Vision, email kit@katikati.co.nz, or go to facebook.com/NZTunnellingCompany.

For details in Arras: facebook.com/CarriereWellington.

AN EXTRACT FROM JACK NORRIS'S DAIRY

Written on April 8, 1916, not long after he arrived in France:

I was sent in charge of 4 men to clean out an old French mine in the J Sector. Judging by this mine, the French sappers do some splendid work but very slow. It is only about 20ft under the surface and runs 800ft out right under the German first and second line of trenches. We all take our mines about 100 or 140 ft below the surface even further than that if necessary. Our O.C. reckons on getting down on the water level if possible so as the Germans cannot get underneath us and it has proved a good idea for the enemy has blown 19 mines and has not damaged one of our mines or caught any of our men.

- Waikato Times

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