An Unsolved Mystery
A Story of Warfare Under the Earth
Lieut. C. W. Tilbrook
Who Wrote “The Enemy Under the Earth," “Buried Alive," “An Underground Tank," etc.
WE had finished our front line system and, when we looked at our work, we knew that it was good.
In all we had located fourteen chambers under strategic points of the enemy line — chambers that were loaded and ready to “blow” whenever the word came from headquarters. That the Hun had not located any of these chambers we knew, because we inspected them regularly and found them untouched. It provided us with a strange sense of elation, the knowledge that we were prepared to literally blow his line, opposite our sector, into smithereens whenever the G.H.Q. in its wisdom deemed the time to be
We of the tunneling corps were very much satisfied with ourselves those days. We had beaten the Hun at every turn in mineland. The God of Battles had been with us. The enemy had started work before us, digging galleries under our lines like the tentacles of a huge devil fish before we had been aware of the danger. Since we had started to fight him at his own game, however, we had been able to completely checkmate him. By luck or by hard work, I am not sure which, we had been able to find his chambers every time and to draw the fangs before he could strike. On the other hand we had often “blown” his line at important points. Up to the time I write we had never lost any of our works. Our system was still intact and we took a huge pride in the network of narrow passages that we had delved out under No Man’s Land.
Matters had reached the sts^e, in fact, where there was little for us to do. We kept “nursing parties” only in the system, for patrol purposes. .No new work was being undertaken. It began to look as though we might be moved to another sector or drafted into another branch and the probabilities of some such move being made was the main topic of conversation with us. One night I made bold and askelt;} Major Henry at dinner what would likely be done with us.
“We’ll be kept here, of course,” he snapped. “There’s plenty more work for us to do.”
At the time I could not imagine what work there was to be done but the O.C.’s tone did not encourage further
questioning so I let the matter drop. I was not to be kept in suspense long, however, for the next afternoon Major Henry took me with him to Cassel, the second Army Headquarters. Here I was introduced into a conference on a scheme to extend the underground system for the purpose of housing a battalion between the first and second lines. It was an ambitious scheme and I listened with intense interest as I realized that I was not being taken into the confidence of the staff officers for nothing. Gradually the plans were shaped and at the finish I learned to my delight that the work was to be done on our sector. On the way back Major Henry said to me:
“I am going to put you in as works officer.” I expressed my great delight, and he added : “This will be all plain
sailingemdash;no stopping to listen, no fear of the Hun being around. You’ll be far enough back to sail right in.”
But for once he was wrongemdash;I think it was the only time I had ever known him
to be in error. As a matter of fact I was due for the most exciting experiences perhaps of my whole underground career.
The work outlined for us was to put in a system of tunnels behind the front line that would be large enough to accommodate a battalion and to provide a safe means for troops to pass to and from the front lines. It would be unwise to specify the exact part of the line where the operation was to be carried out but when I say it was in the Ypres salient the reader will understand the need for the underground passage to the front lines. The salient was then, as always, under heavy bombardment and the casualties from snipers had been shockingly heavy. It was largely to overcome the losses from sniping that the staff had decided on the underground route. Such, at least, was the information given out. We had all heard a different reason and we used to talk it over as we bent to our task.
“The Big Push is coming at last,” some would remark. “They want this system so they can send attacking forces up without the Hun seeing them. Boys, we’re ‘ taking the first step towards the shore.”
WELL, we started work three-quarters of a mile behind the front line. The first shaft was sunk at night and the exit was promptly camouflaged. It was a rush undertaking so all the men needed for the work were provided. When we got nicely under way, there were no fewer than five parties working at once. The system was to be an elaborate one, needless to state, the plans calling for barracks, dugouts, mess rooms, Divisional Headquarters, etc. It was to be provided with ready means of exit in all directions and to be guarded by 28 machine guns, carefully placed so that they would command the whole sector. The plans had been carefully worked out but, owing to the extreme secrecy with which we had to proceed, it was a slow and laborious undertaking.
We worked during the day at excavating and at night we evacuated the bags on to a light railroad and hauled them back to a Take about three-quarters of a mile away. The earth was emptied into the lake because in this way the enemy
would not be able to spot any spoil dumps, which would have given our plan
The work progressed well until the line of our main tunnel coincided with the old grave yard in Maple Copse. Here we encountered a veritable chamber of horrors. The line drawn for the tunnel went clear through the site of the burying ground where reposed the bodies of 100,000 brave men who had fallen in action—it was here that the casualties of the three battles of Ypres were interned. We were working on a six foot level and every drive of pick or shovel seemed to bring us into contact with the decomposing remains of friend or foe.
I had read of the work of ghouls but never in my wildest flights of imagination had I conceived of anything to equal this. Yet we had to go on through. As fast as we drove the bore of our tunnel along we sprinkled the four walls with chloride of lime and creosote and hurriedly timbered it up. It became so bad that the men were not able to work for more than an hour at a time. We always wore our gas masks.
When we came out we were shunned, even by the hardened veterans of the trenches. We permeated the atmosphere, for our clothes became saturated with gangrenous slime. Once I heard a Brigadier, who happened to be passing as I came up for a breather, say: “Poor
devils!” It was the mildest term I had ever heard applied to us. We were ghouls and the army, which delights in levity, and expresses itself in invective, found all manner of terms to apply to us. I could imagine the feelings of the lepers of old who stood at city gates and intoned their mournful cry of warning, “Unclean! Unclean !”
The human remains that we found it necessary to exhume were placed in a large trench, dug for the purpose, and the burial service was read over them. I do
not know how many were thus disturbed but the number was large.
EVENTUALLY we got through that chamber of horrors and we were congratulating ourselves on the fact that nothing worse fronted us now than the ordinary discomforts of underground work, such as lack of air and noxious gases. We found, however, that we had figuratively jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Our line tapped a sewage drain—a main drain in which a man six foot in height could walk. It came apparently from some large town back of the German lines, running north and south and thus crossing our tunnel at right angles. Our odoriferous sufferings were not yet over.
The presence of this drain had not been ascertained before and it aroused misgivings. Suppose the Germans had used it to give them access beneath our lines? Or suppose they decided some time in the future to do so? An order came from H. Q. to investigate.
Knowing that the air would be bad, I got into a proto set and replaced my trench boots by rubber waders. Taking a canary with me, I cautiously set out on my tour of investigation.
I have not made mention before of the little feathered allies that we often took with us in our underground work. Canaries had been found invaluable in detecting poisonous gases in the galleries. They are very susceptible to carbon monoxide and at the first trace will fall to the bottom of the cage, thus giving us warning before our own senses had detected the danger. The use of the birds was not as cruel as may seem at first thought for they have a rapid heart action and soon recover when taken back to the fresh air.
The bird that I took on this occasion was called Bob. He was a great favorite with all of us and the hero of eighteen tests. Despite this extended experience with the terrors of poison gas, Bob was
still in splendid condition and a fine singer.
“Now see here, Bob,” I remarked to him, as I swung his cage over my shoulder “no singing this time. One solitary peep on this little jaunt and you may spill the beans for both of us.”
DOWN we went into the sewer and I splashed my way in the southerly direction; first I flashed on a light every now and then to see how my little partner was taking it. As he seemed quite chipper and full of life, I concluded that the air was good. After going about three hundred yards I reached the end of the drain where it dipped down and emptied into a stream. So I turned back and went in the other direction.
After passing the point where our tunnel had broken in and where I paused for a moment to speak to the sentry, I waded on for about three-quarters of an hour and finally came to what appeared to be a dead end. A stone wall faced me. Flashing on my torch, I discovered that there was a circular opening above my head and that iron rungs, imbedded in the clammy wall provided the means of climbing up. I was just about to mount them when Bob, evidently pleased with the brilliant illumination of the torch after being so long in pitch darkness, raised his voice in song. High and shrill went up his cadence of gladness. I nearly dropped the cage, so horror-stricken was I at the untimeliness of his efforts. I judged we were at least half a mile behind the German lines by this time!
My first thought was to strangle the bird, but my next was better. I extinguished the torch and Bob immediately subsided into silence again. For a few moments I stood in frozen silence, waiting for sounds above to show whether we had been heard. No signs came, however, so I turned and started back.
It occurred to me then that the air could not be very bad since the bird had felt impelled to sing, so I decided to have as much comfort as possible on the way back. I turned off the oxygen and removed my mask. An odor that nauseated even my hardened olfactory organ enveloped me. I drew my mask back on again in a frenzy of haste. Bob was indeed a wonderful bird to be able to sing in that kind of an atmosphere!
Arriving back at our entrance I turned the canary over to his keeper and held a conference with my bro ther officers. They agreed with me that it would be necessary to find out what was above that hole and accordingly I elected to go back with a party, of two to finish the investigation. My companions were an officer named Moore who had won the nickname of “Mopsy”—in our frequent hand-to-hand scraps underground with the enemy—his grimness in “mopping them up” had earned the name— and a sapper named O’Sullivan. The latter had spent part of his life before the mast and the other part delving in the bowels of the earth in a Cornish copper mine. His forte was wrestling and he had a genius
for swearing in a conglomerate of the languages of the seven seas. Altogether they were a most suitable pair for the adventure ahead of us and I felt quite a bit of confidence in having such redoubtable comrades.
So we started off in ordinary dress and waders, armed only with revolvers. O’Sullivan carried the usual mobile charge of 25 lbs. of ammonal, for we did not know what an opportunity would arise to “blow.” As we entered the sewer, he stopped and sniffed audibly.
“’Taint exactly Ceylon’s spicy breezes, sir,” he remarked.
We gained the dead end of the drain and I proceeded to mount the iron rungs, leading to the circular opening overhead. At this end the sewer had become deeper and the end wall was about nine feet in diameter. It was evidently part of a big drainage system. The work W’as very ancient but in a state of excellent preservation as it was built in Flemish bond.
I forced back the trap door that covered the opening without any difficulty, and, climbing through, found myself in a dark and musty upper chamber. The others scrambled through after me and we proceeded to examine the place warily. A further row of iron rungs sunk into the wall suggested that we must continue on up, so I went ahead, hand over fist. Another trap door, less easy to move, admitted me to a small, low cellar filled with barrels. Here I stopped and waited for my companions. We exchanged uneasy whispers, for it was apparent that, if discovered now, we would be nicely trapped. I tipped one of the barrels and found it empty.
“Will we go on, sir?” asked O’Sullivan, in a hoarse whisper.
“Can’t very well leave off now,” I replied. “We’ve got to see what’s above first.”
At one end of the cellar was a flight of ricketty-looking steps, leading up to still another trap door. I had mounted these steps and was just preparing to raise the door with my back when I heard hasty footsteps on the floor above. I crouched down into as small a space as nature would allow and held my breath. They came across the floor and stopped a few feet from where I waited. I expected to see the door raise above me and I gripped my revolver for action.
DUT nothing happened. The man above •*-* moved away. A moment later other steps sounded above and a rumble of conversation came to our ears. I motioned to Moore, who could speak German, to come up beside me. Very cautiously he negotiated the creaky steps and sat down beside me. He listened intently.
“Germans?” I whispered, after a minute or two.
He nodded. “Yes, officers, as far as I can make out.”
As the conversation above proceeded, Mopsy gave evidences of excitement. He gripped my arm. “On with your torch,”
he whispered, “I want to make a note or two before I forget this.”
I swiched on my light and Mopsy carefully jotted down some of the things he picked out from the guttural murmur that reached our ears. I learned later that it was nothing very important he heard— some points with reference to the German positions and the names and numbers of some of the enemy battalions facing us. The most important point was that it showed the building above us to be the advanced divisional headquarters.
The conversation lasted perhaps half an hour. At the end of that time, a clatter of feet indicated the breaking up of the conference. After waiting to make sure that none of the Germans had remained behind, we climbed down to our friendly drain again and so back to camp.
THE discovery was reported to Major Henry and, after another delay to allow him to investigate personally, it was decided to go ahead and load the cellar in readiness to “blow.”
It proved the most delicate job we had attempted. Any noise would betray us to the occupants of the building above, so we had to work barefooted in the cellar, the cans of ammonal brought in bound in burlap and strapped on the backs of our men. This enabled them to carry them up the iron ladders without any handling, which would have been dangerous. Fancy transferring cans of deadly explosive up a ladder of iron rungs in pitch darkness !
Finally, we had our nest safely planted and wired. I was in the cellar when the last connection had been made and all that remained to be done was to put the “shores” in place. With me were Mopsy Moore and O’Sullivan. Below in the drain, the rest of our party were “tamping.” For the benefit of readers who did not see my first article, I had better explain that to “tamp” is to build a wall of sand bags to close up your own gallery
before letting a charge off and to make possible your own retreat in safety. They had been instructed to tamp for fifty feet, leaving a narrow passage at the top for us to wriggle out by.
Above all was silent for the time being, although we had had clear evidences just before of the building being occupied. We wanted it to be, needless to state. I was just ready to signal the retreat when a crash and a loud cry came up from below. We learned afterwards that one of our sappers had fallen, breaking his leg.
We stood stock still, Moore and O’Sullivan and I. If the noise had penetrated above, we were done for. A wall of sand bags blocked our retreat in the drain, for it would obviously be impossible for three men to crawl through the narrow passage left for us in the face of pursuit. There was nothing to it. We would have to stand and fight.
OVERHEAD there was a sudden scurry. I sprang behind a barrel for cover and the other two rapidly followed suit. It was not a moment too soon. The trap door above our heads opened and a shaft of light cut the gloom of the cellar.
A guttural voice demanded to know in German who was there. Not a sound answered him. Further outcry had been stifled by the wounded man below and, as for us, we did not dare to breathe. The light wavered and we heard steps coming down. I glanced around my barrel and saw that it was an orderly, carrying an electric torch at arm’s length ahead of him. Behind the orderly were two officers.
The party came down cautiously, stopping with each step to listen. They were nervous. One of the officers impatiently ordered the orderly in the van to hurry up but did not himself show any eagerness for the investigation.
It so happened that Mopsy Moore and O’Sullivan had taken refuge together on
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Continued, from page 23
the opposite side of the cellar from me. The next development, therefore, came as a surprise to me. I had drawn my revolver, hoping that it would not be necessary to use it, and was crouching still more closely in the shadow behind my barrel. The three Germans had barely touched foot to floor when there was a rush, a scramble, a sound of falling barrels, the impact of blows and a jumble of breathless oaths in various languages. My companions had rushed them from behind.
I kicked the barrel from in front of me and stood up. The torch of the orderly had fallen to the floor and now sent up a slantwise ray of light which illuminated half of the cellar. But I could make out what had happened. So vigorous and unexpected had been the rush of my comrades that the three Germans had been swept over the open trap door. The orderly had, luckily for himself, fallen to one side, and there he lay, moaning softly. The two officers had gone through and down, not into the chamber immediately below us but, judging from the sound, clear through into the drain. It was a long fall. As a matter of fact we found their bodies later in the drain. Both had been killed in the fall.
Mopsy went over to the orderly and brought his wandering faculties into coherency with a vigorous shake. He first threatened the prostrate Boche with all manner of violence and then interrogated him as to things above. “We’re safe, Tilly,” he said, finally, “This chap says there’s no one else above. I’ve got him talking at the end of my gat so I think it’s the truth.”
“Done for ’em!” exulted O’Sullivan. “Pretty clean rush, eh, sir?”
"Let’s clean some of them up, above there as well,” said Moore, whose fighting blood was aroused. “We might find a few generals or a mess of square-neck colonels up there. It’s the chance of a life
I could not dissuade him from climbing the stairs and looking into the room above. He came down a step or two and beckoned us.
“Coast’s clear,” he announced in a hoarse whisper. “I’ll stump you to see what kind of a place it is.”
T DON’T know what impulse it was on * which we acted. It was foolish in the extreme, nay reprehensible, for we were jeopardizing our enterprise by lingering there. Nevertheless we followed Moore up the stairs and into the room above.
The room in which we found ourselves was evidently used as an office. The windows were darkened with metal shutters and the only light in the room came from two small oil lamps. This evidently was by way of precaution for the building could not have been far from the front lines. We left O’Sullivan at the trapdoor to keep the prisoner below covered with his revolver and thus intimidate him into silence. In the meantime, Moore and I made a hasty examination of the room. We looked through the drawers of a flattopped table that was being used as a desk and pocketed any documents that looked to be worth while. We were too excited to really examine the papers and took everything on chance. As it developed later, we were not lucky in our choice, for we secured nothing of any particular value, except some copies of recent general orders. Moore went about the work
with more composure than I was able to summon. In fact, he seemed prepared to stay there indefinitely. Finally, after several low-voiced suggestions that we had better be moving on, I took him by the
“Come on. Let’s clear out,” I quavered. “We have enough dope. The main thing is to get out in time to blow this place.” He assented rather unwillingly and we beat a hasty retreat to the cellar. O’Sullivan went right along with the prisoner and with instructions to the sergeant in charge of the party on the other side of the barricade of sand bags to wait for us.
Moore and I then proceeded to put the shores in place. They had already been fitted so the work only took us about five minutes.
When we reached the drain, wé found that the tamping had dammed up the sewage and—well, it was a case of wading through up to our arm pits. Moore climbed up the barricade first and disappeared headfirst through the small opening that had been left. I followed and wriggled in after him.
To crawl through a close passage, fifty feet long, with barely enough room to move arms and legs in the effort to proís an ordeal of the most severe kind. Several times I thought I would never make it. Moore was a smaller man than me and he was soon far ahead. I tried to call out to him but my breath failed me. To go back meant death when the “blow” came. To advance seemed impossible.
Once I stopped for several minutes in sheer desperation. Then, with strength renewed, I made a further effort. I found it possible to move along slowly. I struggled on by a series of jerks and contortions. It seemed as though that passage were miles long. But there is an end to everything; and finally I did get through; thoroughly tired and nerve-strung.
“What happened to you?” demanded Moore, brusquely. “Thought you were never coming.”
“You had nothing on me there,” I retorted weakly. “I began to think I wasn’t coming myself. Close up that hole quick. We must blow now.”
They filled the hole with sand bags. I took the exploder between my knees and pumped down. We heard a muffled roar and felt the earth shake. Our day’s work was done.
Our observer outside reported to us later in the day that he had seen smoke and debris rise out of a small wood at a point coinciding with our calculations as to the location of the German headquarters. He also had noted that one of our aeroplanes, flying rather low at the time over the spot, had seemed to be seriously inconvenienced by our little eruption and, as soon as it had steadied, had fled from the scene of our wrath. The sequel to this was contained in a German communique which we obtained from the wallet of a German officer captured some time after.
“The —th advanced Divisional IfQ’s of the Landsturm was completely wiped out on the morning of the —st inst. by a direct hit from one of the enemy’s bombing planes which was observed flying low in this vicinity.”
Once more the much despised tunnellers were deprived of the honor done them. The early bird got the credit for the worm’s stealthy work.