Buried Alive!

The Experiences of a Canadian Sapper

Lieut. C. W. Tillbrook September 1 1918

Buried Alive!

The Experiences of a Canadian Sapper

Lieut. C. W. Tillbrook September 1 1918

"DID ten feet all lagged in C sap last night, Old Top, and we had to stop and listen for an hour. The men said they heard sounds with the naked ear—talking and walking—but the listener and myself couldn't hear anything with the G phone. Just the same watch that place.”

The speaker stopped and then, in a voice mingled with emotion, he enquired: “Who the deuce let that candle drip into my cigarettes—? By the way did any pickles come up with the rations last night?”

I got up into a sitting position rather quickly and regretted doing so instantly for the top of my head came in contact with some of the caps, or roof, of the dugout; for I was sleeping in the top bunk.

At this point a clamour outside announced the arrival of the old shift for the rum parade. I picked up my shrapnel helmet and proceeded to go on shift.

I remember that there was an altercation going on between the sergeant, the officer presiding and our company rum mopper, Angus. The sergeant announcing that the R. M. had already had his issue, the accused stating emphatically that he had not. I am inclined to think from previous experience that the sergeant was correct. I made my way up the gallery still hearing Angus protesting his innocence. I ascended into the front line trench, and met the shift sergeant and instructed him with regard to the distribution of the men.

Overhead one of our planes was droning its way over the lines presumably taking photographs of the enemy’s line. A few Archies, (antiaircraft shells) were bursting away behind him. Evidently the German gunners were not awake, or overworked.

I walked on along the trenches and for one instant looked towards Hill 60.

“Zim!” I bobbed down quickly for a sniper was at work. I was more than ever envious of the man who measured five feet six. I was, and am, six feet and one-half inch.

I proceeded on my way to C sap.

Arriving there, I took off my boots preparatory to descending into the works. This step was absolutely necessary for all mining operations must be carried on in silence, and one of the easiest sounds to detect is a man walking in the gallery.

I lit my candle and walked along about two hundred yards through the narrow gallery. My candle grew dimmer till it seemed on the point of going out owing to the bad air. I reached the “T” where the galleries turned right and left and met the shift sergeant again.

“Air very bad, sir.”

“Yes, get the bellows installed right away.”

“Yes, sir. Shall I come with you, too?”


That word saved his life as will be shown by what follows. I only wish that I could have said the same to the brave fellows working in the above-mentioned sap.

“Now get that done right away, sergeant.”

“Very good, sir.”

“Oh! by the way, how much have we to do to get to B sap?”

“About eighty feet, sir.”

“Well we should be through in two days and I shall be very glad when it is all over. I don’t like that place. The Hun is somewhere around. Well, carry on."

He turned sideways to let me pass and we both proceeded in opposite directions: I to what was to be a living tomb: he to get the means of ultimate salvation.

I walked about one hundred and fifty feet when my candle went out so I lit my electric torch. The air was fetid, smelling of sandbags and decaying wood, and can only be described as smelling like a sap.

ON reaching C 2 right, I found the men working with a will for they wanted to get through to the sweet air which was awaiting them less than one hundred feet away, but there was a deadly enemy but a few feet away who in ten minutes was to put an end to their desire for air or anything else, namely, the Westphalian Pioneers with about two hundred pounds of westphalite, the very powerful explosive used by the German miners.

I called the men’s attention to the fact that they were making too much noise and had better stop work for a while as I wanted to listen.

I put on my G phone and proceeded to the listening pocket which was about eighty feet from the men, and at right angles to the main gallery about thirty feet in depth. For five minutes I could hear nothing but the tuttuttut of a machine gun away in the distance. Twice I heard the sound of a shell bursting: then silence. What was that? I was immediately tuned up. Somebody walking, several people quite hurriedly, then a dull thudding noise, which I diagnosed as tamping, the most deadly sound a mining engineer can ever wish to hear for it indicates that the enemy is loaded and is preparing to fire his mine. I stepped out of the pocket and went down to the men and said: “Get your things together and get out at once. Don’t make any noise, but hurry.”

I went back into the pocket and commenced listening again for sounds. I could feel my pulse beating in my wrists, neck and temples. It was the first time that I had ever heard the enemy tamp, so any acceleration in my heart’s beat was excusable.

I could hear my men coming up the gallery. Then I heard a crack followed instantly by a muffled roar. I experienced a feeling as if I were being spun round on a roulette table: then I was hurled up in the air, and then as though a large door had fallen on me there came a complete blank.

My first sensations on regaining consciousness were not very clear. There was a ringing in my ears and a stinging numbness all over my body, especially in my face. Gradually it dawned on me that there had been an explosion. I was lying face down. I tried to rise but found I could not move for I was pinned down by some fallen timbers which were on my left side. I fumbled for my watch. It was still going and pointed to eight sixteen I put my hand out and encountered something hard, wet and sticky, but could not imagine what it was. I tried to move, but my efforts were rewarded by a shower of dirt which fell from the unsupported roof. In feeling around my hand came in contact with my torch. I pressed the catch and it lit up the remains of our gallery and the sappers.

I never want to experience anything like it again—death, desolation and doom all around. The sticky something was the top of a man’s skull. I screamed out. Nothing answered me but a shower of dirt. I was alone with darkness and the dead. The dead could not hurt me but the darkness I did fear.

I soon realized that, if I were going to do anything, I would have to do it at once, so I commenced a rolling motion with my body. After about twenty minutes of this painful activity I was able to wriggle free.

I EXPLORED carefully and slowly and found I was in the main gallery which was very much “crumped.” In the course of my search I came on a few arms and legs, all that remained of what had been probably as fine a sample of men as were ever on the Western battle front.

I then felt hopeless and I must confess that I cried as if I were an infant. Finally, however, I collected my wits and groped my way in the opposite direction, only to be abruptly stopped by a wall of loose dirt—I was buried alive! My next few moments were spent in a condition bordering on insanity. I shrieked and yelled and beat on the walls of earth in a frenzy. I clawed frantically at the damp bounds of my prison and in time my efforts served the necessary purpose of quieting me down. And then I started to crawl back to where I had been in the first place.

My head suddenly came in contact with a timber which had fallen down diagonally. I swore vigorously. That broke the spell, I realized that I had got a hold on myself again. So I sat down and began to 'think over my position more or less calmly. I reasoned out that our other work parties would know of the explosion and would try to find out if there were any person alive. I crawled into the listening pocket and found that it was intact. It was at right angles to the force of the explosion—a fact which accounted for my escape from the fate of my comrades. On the sills, or floor, was my G phone. I put it on and listened: I could detect a crackling sound, due to disintegration of the soil after the explosion: then, joy of joys, I heard two knocks followed by three sharper ones—the miner’s knock, sometimes known as Kentish fire. I replied and listened again; and got the signal back “Coming through.”

I STARTED to claw with my hands at the face of the pocket and I very soon had a pile of dirt that was going to cut me off from the main gallery. I went back and got some sand bags. Then I noticed a change coming over me; my head was aching and I felt very big about the hands and feet. This was due to carbon monoxide poisoning from the explosion. If the relief party did not break through soon I knew it would be too late.

I started to fill the bags, but my hands and fingers seemed like bunches of bananas. I could hear by this time the other party with my ear; they were evidently boring. Would they be quick enough? It got very warm and comfortable and I did not seem to mind how long they were as long as they would let me sleep. I knew I was going off in a sleep which would be fatal, and the thought of death, when life was so close at hand, stimulated me to make another effort. I crawled to the face of the listening pocket and started to scratch at the soil. Then I tried filling more sand bags. How long this went on, I do not know, but I suddenly felt another shower of dirt and something hit me in the face. There was a clank of metal, and then a rush of cold air, the rescue party had got a bore-hole through to me. I heard the eight inch auger being withdrawn, then a voice said:

“Who’s there?”

I shouted back: “Me. For God’s sake get me out!”

Then down the hole came something. I reached out feebly and felt a hose. Then came a piff-paff of air and I knew that the bellows, which I had formerly instructed the sergeant to get, were playing their part in keeping me alive.

In about one hour I crawled out to the rescue party. The officer of the previous shift greeted me with the anxious query:

“Did he get any of you?”

“All but me."

“Good God! Seven of the best gone.”

The sergeant standing by said: “Oh well, sir, it’s all in the day’s work—could men have a tot of rum?” I do not remember if the answer was in the affirmative—doubtless it was—for the gallery began to tilt and everything went dark and once more I relapsed into unconscious.

The next thing I remember was opening my eyes to the glorious sunlight and my batman, my brother officer and the sergeant were looking at me.

“How are you feeling, Old Top?”

“As if I were going to die. Thank you very much.”

“Are you past rum?”

“Try me." They did—with success.

I WAS still feeling shaky after the effects of being buried and was decidedly blue for some of my best men were gone. I felt like reporting sick. I could at least get back to a casualty station for a couple of weeks and possibly to Blighty. I tried a cigarette. It tasted like nothing on earth that I knew of—absolutely vile. So I threw it away in disgust. I heard someone entering my quarters and then a light appeared. I looked and saw that it was Major Henry—the O.C.

He lit a couple of candles and coming over to the side of my bunk, took hold of my wrist.

“When did you have something to eat last?”

“This morning, sir, before it happened.” “Now, old man, get hold of yourself, I’ll call your batman."

In a few minutes I could hear the thrum thrum of the Primus stove at work. The O.C. looked at me sharply.

“Tilly, you have had a bad time but you have no bones broken. I can have you evacuated if you like but I would rather have you stay on. Those boys have to be avenged, and I don’t think it will be long before we can get back at the Boche. We have lost some men but remember that this is war, and you can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs. If every little setback we have is going to take the heart out of us, we may as well quit. Just remember that at present not one hundred yards away there are some Huns laughing up their sleeves because they ‘got us.’ The boys that are gone have to be paid for. Will you collect?”

I felt so mean that I was ashamed of myself and nearly forgot about my headache.

“I’ll be ready next shift, sir.”

“Good! Remember, don’t get windy, get the Hun.” After we have eaten we will go and look at the damage done.” Then my batman arrived with two plates of beef steak, fried potatoes and canned peas. I started picking at mine, but soon I was wondering what was going to follow. It is quite true that eating and fighting only want a beginning. The “afterwards" consisted of some canned apricots, canned cream and coffee. The war wasn’t so bad after all.

WE got out into the front line trench and walked along in the darkness, stumbling into gaps in the duck boards. “St! Keep still.”

A very bright light shot up into the night, hissing on until it burst with a pop about fifty feet above our trenches, illuminating the landscape and showing the bowed heads of working and carrying parties interspersed between the splintered remains of what had once been trees.

We stumbled along to C Sap. Here we discovered some infantry men huddled just inside the entrance.

“What are you doing there?” “Nothing, sir.”

“Well, get out and do something quick. You know very well you are forbidden the saps. They are to be used by Tunnellers only. Now get along and don’t let me catch you again.”

The poor tired fellows scrambled out and wandered off to find a vacant piece of firing step on which to stretch their weary limbs. We could hear them muttering something about “bleedin’ underground larncers.”

The O.C. led the way down the steps. I shuddered as we passed through the deserted galleries for the air was stickier and damper than ever and the whole place seemed to advertise the fact that it was a tomb. We crawled through into the hole where I had been buried and made our way to the spot where the explosion had occurred.

OUR lights picked out the wreckage and above all I noticed two legs sticking out at an impossible angle. The O.C. caught hold of one and moved it. The sound was distressing—splintered bones grating.

“Don’t do that, sir, please, I’ll get a party in to clean it up.”

“I don’t know that it matters.”

“What shall I do, sir?”

“Bag it up, about ten feet in depth. Now we’ll go back to the dugout. I want you to get the carpenter to make a cross and then you write the men’s names on it with their numbers and put underneath ‘killed in action’ and bury it with them.”

“All right, sir.”

We got back to our dugout and met two of the other officers. “Anything to report?"

“No, sir, except that there are occasional sounds in B sap.”

The O.C. flashed a look at the speaker. “Ah! I thought so. Clear the men out and get your two best listeners in there.” “Yes, sir.”

He left us to walk on to the next of works at Hooge, a matter of two miles, from there to the Redan, and so on right round our system.

What a man our O.C. was! Of commanding personality, a born leader with an indomitable will, I have known him to go for three days without food and five days without sleep and at the end of the time he was as fresh as if he had just got up and finished breakfast. His brain always worked with lightning-like rapidity and he was gifted with a wonderful power of deduction. He seemed able to tell exactly where the Hun was, and what he was doing. Henry is still alive and going strong. Now that tunnelling is almost a thing of the past, he is a D. S. O. and a colonel of one of the crack Imperial regiments.

I GOT back to my dugout and threw myself down on my bunk. The signallers were busy in the next dugout, tuning up their buzzers and with this music in my ears I gradually faded away into the land of nod. I awakened at 5.20 a.m. by my watch, and got up. A messenger came in from the signallers, and handed in a slip—“O.C. Blighty. Ajax condor fly AAA Able Fred Apple. O.C. Stone.” It was a code message from Henry. I deciphered it and read the result out to my fellow officers.

“Something doing, Old Top.”

“And soon too.”

We picked out a party of six men, collected two torpedoes, three cans of ammonal, an eight-inch auger and ten rods —and then started for B sap.

About twenty-five feet up the gallery a candle light showed two forms crouching over in the listening posts. As we approached, the two listeners looked up towards us, their foreheads wrinkled and eyes opened, not so much as in surprise, but more as if in protest at our having disturbed them in their vigils. The smaller of the two men, Angus by name, got up on his knees as we approached and, when I got beside, he handed me the ear piece of his G phone and whispered: “We’ll be shaking hands with him in a few hours, sir.”

I put on the ear clips, Clomp! Clomp! Clomp, clomp, clomp! I took the G phone off and listened, I could hear the sound ever so slightly with my ear, but still it was there, just as if I were inside a brick building with very thick walls and someone was hitting the outside with a hard wooden mallet. The Boche was working on the face with great speed, and, as far as I could judge, he was about the same level and to the right. Was he coming towards, parallel with, or past us? Time would show. But that time had not to be wasted.

THE boring party arrived and it was but the space of ten minutes before they had the auger at work and the first sandbag filled. The auger is practically the same thing as a post digger but instead of being used vertically it is used horizontally.

“Bingy”—my fellow officer—was arranging the ammonal containers placing them ready for use. I beckoned him to me.

“Send a wire in code to the O.C., tell him ‘Enemy working to the right of B sap. Heard with the naked ear. Am getting ready to load, will not fire till absolutely necessary—wire approval, O.C. Blighty.’ ”

“All right. How about the front line?”

“I was coming to that. Go to the O.C. trenches and tell him enough to get his ‘wind up.’ Make him hustle. Tell him you are going to blow the Hun and he must hold his line very light for three hundred feet on either side of B sap. Tell him to have bombers ready in case the Hun gets by us. Pile it on good and thick. I don’t want a lot of them hanging around the sap head, for if the observer at Hill 60 spots a crowd he will immediately start a ‘strafe’—you know.”

“All right, Old Bean, I’ll pile the agony on.” And he disappeared.

BY this time the boring party had got their hole in ten feet. I stopped them and decided that they had gone far enough. The Hun could be heard much plainer now. About this time a new arrival appeared in the form of Captain Barker. He was a typical miner, a short and thick-set man with an eye like a hawk. He had a very determined mouth, but it was a good natured one when he smiled— which was only on rare occasions.

“Good morning.”

“Is it?”

“Something doing, eh?”


“Where is he?”

“To the right, coming this way.”

He listened for about a minute, then asked: “How far do you estimate him?” “About twelve feet.”

“He was—but now?”

I listened intently—I could hear the Boche talking plainly. Then there was a tapping of wood on wood, they were putting in a sett or framework of timber with which the galleries are lined. Then work was continued by them. Clomp! Clomp! Clomp! Then patter, patter, as of the snow sliding off a roof and falling—it was the loosened dirt dropping. Then we could hear their shovels scraping on the timbers, as they lifted up the dirt to bag it. This was followed by a few dull thuds. They were bumping the nearly full sandbags to compress the material. They started work again.

“Put all lights out,” I whispered.

THE Boche was within two feet of us. Only a thin wall of sand separated us and this might be broken at any moment. We had the advantage if there was going to be a scrap in that we were expecting him and he was in blissful ignorance of our immediate presence.

Captain Barker and myself were lying with our faces towards the bore hole. He whispered back to the men ; “Get back to the steps till you are signalled—three flashes—then one of you crawl quietly up.”

With the slight noise of their clothing brushing against the timbers they left us.

The noise of the enemy’s workers grew much louder. Suddenly there was a splatter and a scrunching, then a rush of cold air—he had broken through into our bore hole!

We heard his exclamation of surprise, and then silence for possibly half a minute, but it seemed ages before there was another movement. It came at last. A light flickered. He had got an electric torch at work.

Our bore hole was only eight inches in diameter, not big enough for him to investigate our gallery thoroughly. The torch came through the bore hole. We dared not move, I looked over at Barker, and he grinned. I put my hand down gently to draw my revolver, but when he frowned, I kept still. The light was withdrawn. There was silence again. Then something started to move and by the slight light filtering through the bore hole I saw a hand, a forearm. I watched it with fascination. It was grimy with dirt. It wandered around, clawing at the empty air, then it moved towards Barker, stopped, and came back towards me, closer and closer. I flattened down still more—it passed over my face but did not touch me, but it came so close that I could feel its warmth. I made up my mind that if the hand did touch me, the owner would rue it, for I would lay hold with my teeth. I bared them ready for it. Then there was sudden disturbance in the enemy’s gallery, a voice commanding, and the hand was withdrawn. More guttural talking. I heard plainly: “Ya, Herr Leutnant Hartzenberg.”

Then I got a glimpse of a face. It was that of a typical “squarehead,” fair and pale, but the one thing I noticed particularly in that brief glance was the animal-like eyes, cruel, cunning and close together. I don t know if either of us made any movement or not, but the next instant there was a flash and report. Herr Leutnant had fired his Luger pistol through the bore hole. My ears sang and my eyes refused to see anything but a dull green mist. Barker caught hold of my hand and squeezed it and I returned his pressure, indicating that each was all right.

The enemy started to move away up his gallery, presumably to hold a confab. Barker whispered: “Come on, Tilly, now’s our chance.”

We crawled down the gallery, and Barker flashed his lamp three times. He had given the signal, we were going to fight.

THE chances now were equal. I saw Sergeant Evans starting to come. “Bring all your men,” Barker ordered. He came on followed by Angus, Smith and “Bingy."

I took hold of a torpedo and rammed it home into the bore hole, which had reached to nine inches in depth before it was broken by the enemy’s work. Barker came with two fifty pounds cans of ammonal, and placed this alongside the bore hole, then two more on top of them—the first part was done.

Crouching we started to pile the sandbags. Two rows had been placed when we heard the enemy party returning. There was a clanking of metal—cans of westphalite! He was going to blow too. It was to be a case of Canadians and ammonal against Huns and westphalite.

We threw discretion to the winds as far as being silent was concerned, and started to heave in bags as they had never been heaved before. I looked at my watch and timed the work. In seven minutes we had six feet tamped; a hundred and eight sand-bags in place—approximately five thousand, five hundred pounds.

The enemy was working with great vigor. We could hear directions being shouted and the bump bump of his bags being driven home. Angus was beside me and said with a grin, “Heinie’ll lose his rum ration if he’s not careful, sir.”

I told him to shut up and get back ten feet. Here we started tamping again. This air chamber between was to act as a pneumatic cushion, for the charge was fairly big, and there would be a considerable backfire. As the enemy was tamping as well, it was going to be necessary for us to have the line of greatest resistance in our gallery.

ON we worked, sand-bag after sand-bag. Our arms ached, the sweat pouring down our faces, necks and bodies; sand and grime settled on us and formed a paste.

It got into our eyes, into our months. Tasting salt, our mouths became dry but still we didn’t have time to remedy it. I saw that the fuse leads were not displaced. Barker from time to time tested them and found that the circuits were intact. they were destroyed we had still one more chance—that was the time fuse from the torpedo, a little white cord about one quarter of an inch in diameter. I watched that as a mother does her sick child. Another six feet was completed but we kept on. Every sandbag meant another degree of safety.

Smith growled out, “What a job at dollar ten a day!”

Angus smiled sweetly and murmured through his parched lips, “But think of the rum.”

Neither of them said any more. “Bingy” panted out a few lines of a popular mining song—

I asked him how much he paid:

He said a dollar a ton:

I said to hell with the man who works, I’d rather be a bum.

And then he grinned his awful grin. It irritated me; would the job never cease? Then we all seemed to get our second wind. We redoubled our efforts and at last we were finished. Another ten feet had been tamped; Barker tested the leads again. They were all right.

“Clear out all now.”

Nobody seemed to want to go, but they turned and walked towards the steps, their breath coming in pants and sobs. At the foot of the steps, Angus turned and said: “When do we get our rum, sir?” “After we’ve blown. Now get on out.”

I believe on Judgment Day he will ask for an issue of the above-mentioned fluid before he answers for his sins, and I’m certain that after the interrogation is over he’ll ask for another.

Bingy inquired if there was anything for him to do.

“Yes. Go up to the front line and see if it craters.”

The reason for this was that by this means we would be able to see if the enemy got the full charge in his gallery. If there was any waste it would blow out of the ground and it would be classified as mine, if not it would be a camouflet.

“All right, Old Top.”

Captain Barker and myself were left alone. I put on the G phone for a minute, and I could distinctly hear the thud of the enemy still tamping. We had won!

All that remained was to connect up and explode.

I TOLD Barker what I heard and he said: “We’ll give them the time fuse. That’ll take thirty seconds.”

I put the fuse slantways so as to get a good surface and thereby give it a good start. Then I applied the match and the fuse began to hiss.

We ran along the gallery and up the steps. Just as we got up to the trench there was a rumble and shaking. The earth seemed to go up and down like an angry sea, then quivered, and came to rest.

We waited for an instant. Then Bingy shouted out: “Not a spoonful, old dear. We got him cold. By the way, here’s a runner asking for you. He says his message is important.”

Barker turned to me and smiled. He started to whistle, “Now the day is over.”' Then he said, “I think we broke an army record. How long, Tilly?”

“Twenty-seven minutes.”

We had placed approximately three hundred sand-bags, or ten thousand pounds in twenty-seven minutes—six men for five tons. We did not have to fill these sand-bags, for that was already done. We always had one side of the gallery lined with filled bags so as to save time.

I suddenly remembered the important message and turning round my eyes fell on the runner. He looked very much done up and evidently fagged. He had been pretty near “it” as a sear across his right cheek denoted. The blood had coagulated and dried on the wound except at one corner from which a thin red stream trickled down his face. As he handed me an envelope I remembered; “You are wounded.”

“Only slightly, sir. An M.G. bullet.

“Pretty close.”

I opened the envelope fully expecting to find the O.C.’s sanction for our blow, which Bingy bad previously wired for. I leaned against the parapet and read the following amazing message:—

“From G.H.Q.

“To O.C. Blighty.

“You have been referring to the enemy in your report as the Hun.

“This must cease. In future refer to him as the enemy.


Speechless, I handed the message to Barker, who in turn gasped and handed it is Bingy. He broke the silence with: "Heavens!! The things that matter!