The spirit and bravery of the Tunnellers from Waihi and all the New Zealand soldiers is highlighted in this touching human story from the Poverty Bay Herald early 1917.
THE ITINERANT TUNNELLERS
Originally published in the Poverty Bay Herald, 3rd January 1917
“Bless you, it was a great life I wouldn’t have missed it in spite of my little lot.” So said Sapper H.M. Mannix, of Waihi, to an Auckland Star representative, in alluding to the lot of the men who burrow underground to reach the enemy.
“I can’t name the places where the tunnellers have been but they have been pretty well all over the Western front, and have had great experiences. We spent about three months at Arras, and some of the ‘big fellows’ told us we had been doing very good work. Every time we made the drive we beat the Fritzes, and on each occasion that they exploded a mine they were about 50 yards short. There was a very brave act carried out by one of our men. One night it was necessary for us to go over the top to destroy a German sap-head, and Lieutenant Durant failed to return. Sapper Edwards went back for him. Whether he got near to him I don’t know, but before he could reach the officer he had both his legs blown off, and he died just after he got back.
“One of our saps was 90ft deep and 500 yards in towards the German lines. The New Zealand tunnellers were fine workers, and, getting through hard chalk we used to advance 4 1/2 feet in eight hours. Two men would work at the face, working for eights hours, and then being off for 24. The exploding of a mine is a great experience. For a mile behind everything rocks and shakes, and when she is let go at night it is a spectacle never to be forgotten. At Arras we left behind us one of the biggest craters on the front.”
Sapper Mannix finished his soldiering career on July 26th, when he was gassed underground. One of the little pleasantries of tunnelling is to leave underground cylinders of gas which are released, so that when enemy engineers mine in the vicinity they become victims to the poison in the galleries. Sapper Mannix caught some of the German gas, and came up to the daylight to collapse. The poisoning acted on his stomach, and for five months he has been in bed, his burly form weakened and emaciated by inability to take solid food. He comes home to undergo an operation, and is looking forward to recovering afterwards and to the joyful hour when he can tackle a well stacked plate of roast beef and kumeras. “When once I get my legs under the table I shall take some shifting, I can tell you.” Sapper Mannix speaks in glowing terms of the Scottish infantry regiments, with whom the New Zealand tunnellers came into contact. “We met some fine fellows amongst the British Army, but they were the best crowd.”
Sometimes working waist deep in water and mud, chilled to the marrow, when they had their first taste of snow and frost, the tunnellers have been foremost amongst the real hard grafters on the Western front.
But still they are smiling . “It’s a great life, and I wouldn’t have missed it even for this,” avers Sapper Mannix, and who’s to say him nay!
100 YEARS ON – ARRAS REMEMBERS
The small French town of Arras plans to replicate the Giant Poppy Art installation in their Town Square this April for the 100 year commemorations for the Battle of Arras.
Waihi’s Kimberley Tool and Design brought the giant poppy petals to life and some of those petals will now be placed in France.
I first built the Giant Poppy in the Auckland Domain in 2015. Over 25,000 New Zealanders and visitors helped me by placing their personal messages. Taking the Poppy to France will complete the circle of respect. However, to get to France and create the Poppy I need your urgent and generous help.
Tony McNeight – Artist