YOU may have seen in recent weeks television reports on the work of the La Boisselle Study Group — a team of historians and archaeologists who are investigating a system of tunnels dug by troops in the First World War near the French village of La Boisselle on the Somme battlefield.
There the British and German trenches were so close together that both sides attempted to dig mines underneath each other, lay explosives and destroy the enemy. On 22nd November, 1915, the Germans successfully blew a mine under the British lines, killing six men of the Royal Engineers who were working in their own tunnels, and seven infantrymen.
Among the dead were two local men, Sappers John Lane and Ezekiel Parkes, both from Tipton.
This photograph of Ezekiel Parkes has been loaned to the Bugle by his grandson James Pearce of Wordsley. James first became interested in his grandfather’s story when his own mother passed away in 1995 and he found his grandfather’s army identity tag among her possessions.
Ezekiel Parkes was 37, and a miner at Baggeridge Colliery, when he volunteered in August 1915. He had no need to enlist, given that he was over the age limit and his occupation was vital to the war effort, but the story is that Ezekiel, John Lane and other miners finished their shift on a Saturday lunchtime and went to the pub for a few drinks, they then marched off together and enlisted as a group.
Three months later Ezekiel and John were killed in action.
Ezekiel left behind his wife Fanny and their six children, four girls and two boys, at their home Victoria Street, Princes End. James’s mother was the eldest at 15.
The British army wanted experienced miners for their tunnelling operations beneath the German trenches. Perhaps Ezekiel thought that he may as well dig for king and country as for the Earl of Dudley, army pay may have been better and, arguably, digging under German trenches was not much more dangerous than digging for Black Country coal. John Lane lived in Coppice Street, Tipton, with his wife and four children, and was 47 years old when he volunteered.
It appears that both men were ‘fast-tracked’, to use a modern phrase, to the front line. They were experienced miners and so would have needed little training to do the job they were intended for. After just a week in training at Chatham they were despatched to the front.
They served with 179th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers.
In October 1915 the company began operations at La Boisselle, in an area the British nicknamed the Glory Hole, sinking deep shafts to forestall German miners who were steadily digging towards the British. It is these tunnels that the La Boisselle Study Group is currently investigating.
From inside the British tunnels the sounds of the Germans digging grew steadily louder and the Company Commander, Captain Henry Hance, ordered that a chamber be prepared and packed with 6,000lbs of explosives, ready to blow up the approaching Germans. A little over 24 hours later, and before the British could set off their charge, at 1.30am on 22nd November, 1915, the Germans blew their own mine.
Captain Hance’s official report of the incident reads as follows:
“I have to report that the enemy blew a very heavy mine at 1.30am from a point in sub-Sector E3 about 50 yards North of point 120, killing, I regret to say, a Cpl. And 5 sappers of this Company, and, I am informed, 7 men of the 10th Essex Regt.
“I was informed that our W shaft and galleries had been wrecked. I arrived at the spot shortly after 2am by which time the men at the top of the shaft had got out of the adit by the underground communication with X into Quemart, the adit entrance into W being closed. The man employed working the air bellows was buried, but was extricated practically unhurt. A canary was lowered down the shaft to test the ventilation and was pulled up after one minute dead. In a very short time the first of our two rescue men arrived with his apparatus, and, as soon as he had put it on, another canary was lowered and after a minute was pulled up, also dead.
“One of the rescue men was lowered on a life line, but at the bottom of the shaft found two of the men, both quite dead. In the meantime, several of the party at the top of the shaft had been more or less affected by gas and on examination I found that the third canary, which had not been put down the shaft, was also dead, which explained the symptoms of those affected; gas was rising up the shaft strongly. I tested the ventilation in the shaft but found it stationary, the gas was simply rising by reason of its light specific gravity and the pressure under which it had been forced into the galleries.
“It was clear that the whole mine system was full of CO a most poisonous gas, and, when the explorer returned with the news that two men at the bottom of the shaft were both dead, that there was no hope for the others; they were certainly poisoned if not killed by the explosion.
“It was also clear that air must be introduced into the galleries before the bodies could be recovered as, even with Proto apparatus on, laborious work in confined spaces endangers the wearers.
“I sent for armoured hose to connect on to the bellows, the iron airpipes being all disconnected and, underground, probably broken up also. This has now been coupled up and I await a report on the exploration.”
The German mine had detonated the British mine in a huge explosion, which is why the galleries that were not destroyed were flooded with such a large amount of carbon monoxide gas.
24 hours later, three bodies were recovered; Corporal William Walker, Sapper Andrew Taylor and Sapper Glen James. As the galleries were cleared, the body of another miner was found, Sapper Robert Gavin. All four were Scots and were buried at the Albert Communal Cemetery. The bodies of John Lane and Ezekiel Parkes were never recovered and remain in the Glory Hole tunnels to this day, 80 feet below ground.
In researching his grandfather’s story James Pearce found that Ezekiel Parkes was not listed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and his name was not recorded on any official memorial.
Thanks to James, Ezekiel’s name has now been engraved on the Thiepval Memorial, along with more than 72,000 names of officers and men from the United Kingdom and South Africa who were killed in the Somme sector and have no known grave.
The Glory Hole has been practically undisturbed since 1918 and the La Boisselle Study Group plans to investigate as much of the buildings, trenches, dugouts, shelters and tunnels as possible. This could take up to ten years and the site will eventually be opened up to the public as a memorial. However, there are no plans to recover the bodies of Ezekiel Parkes and John Lane. They were colleagues in peace and wartime, they lived less than a mile apart, and now lie together deep beneath the French soil — and will remain so