Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Beneath Flanders Fields

Getting close to the earth was a natural reaction under fire; improving the cover of one’s position required tools. All British infantrymen were equipped with a clever personal entrenching tool, which comprised a steel head of combined spade and pick, and a separate wooden handle, called a helve. These tools were supplied to provide a means of digging a shallow scrape in an emergency, or for a multitude of other small jobs in the field, acting as hammer, pick and digging tool.  But it is doubtful that entrenching tools were used to dig many trenches; for that the ubiquitous British General Service (or ‘Bulldog’, named after their Lancashire manufacturer) shovels were needed. GS shovels were issued to the battalion at the rate of 110 per battalion; open-mouthed, with a turned back top to protect the heavy boot of the infantryman, these spades were used in earnest in the digging of frontline trenches. The time estimated in 1914 (as prescribed by the officer’s Field Service Pocket Book) for digging a man’s length of fire trench – two paces or forty-five cubic feet – was 100 minutes under normal conditions. Heavy picks were also provided where the ground was hard enough to warrant them, with seventy-six per battalion. Both tools would be used in digging trenches throughout the war, under the orders of sapper officers and NCOs, the infantry would provide the manpower to do so. Infantrymen were often to carry spades (and picks) into action, such as, famously, by the leading assault troops on the Somme in 1916. This was to allow for the turning of trench lines once captured, with the reversal of the fire step from one side to the other. This would account for the bullet hole in the third spade illustrated, a relict of the frontline trenches of Arras in 1917.

For tunnellers, famously depicted in the novel Birdsong (now a BBC drama production), the use of tools underground was fraught with danger. With both sides listening for the slightest warning that they were working in the same sector, the ringing of picks and shovels could spell disaster, with countermines or camouflets the inevitable result. The special men of the Tunnelling Companies, RE would take care not to make too much noise while kicking clay; for them, the GS spade would be much too crude a tool.

Peter Doyle is co-author, with Peter Barton and Johan Vanderwalle, of the critically acclaimed account of the tunneller's war Beneath Flanders Fields. Click here for more details and reviews.

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