Mine Warfare - A Guide's Insight

November 19, 2012

School trips to the Battlefield sites of World War 1 can have a lasting impact. Adaptable Travel use highly trained and highly respected guides to explain and bring to life the sites of Ypres and Somme on our school trips. One of our guides is Steve Smith, who is also a WW1 author who has a new book coming out soon.


Steve has written his guide to mine warfare to bring some of the sites of WW1 into perspective. MINE WARFARE: Names such as Caterpillar, Hawthorn and Lochnagar may or may not provide the reader with images of WWI. But certainly during the Great War they were well known. The reason for this is because they became names of huge mines blown beneath the German lines. Other names such as Hill 60 or Lone Tree are also very famous places where school visits and the battlefield enthusiast will go to see huge craters that still scar the land and give the visitor a great perspective as to how this subterranean war progressed.This article hopes to provide you with further information on two mines that can be visited today.

The Hooge Crater was blown on 19th July 1915 and Lieutenant Geoffrey Cassels of the 175th Tunneling Company had been given the task of constructing this only five and a half weeks previously. His tunnelers created a shaft and then dug a tunnel 190 feet long and had packed it with 3,500 pounds of gunpowder, gun cotton and ammonal explosive. The explosion made a crater that was estimated at being 120 feet wide and 20 feet deep. When it was blown two companies of the 4th Battalion Middlesex Regiment stormed it assisted by the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders. It came as a complete surprise to the Germans and 300 yards was gained although two thirds of the ground they captured had to be relinquished before the line could be consolidated. The site you see today is not the original crater. These are three German mines that were blown up in June 1916. The original crater was actually filled in after WWI and is situated at the end of the Hooge Crater site that you can visit. The best way to view the original site is to stand on the Menin Road with the Hooge Crater museum behind you and the little access road that runs next to it in front of you. You will see a fence on the other side of the road. Beyond that fence is where the crater was situated.

Another mine that is often missed is the Caterpillar Mine. In comparison to Hooge this mine is still there and was packed with 70,000 pounds of ammonal explosive! It was one of 19 mines exploded on 7th June 1917 at the start of the Battle of Messines.

The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company relieved the 3rd Canadian Company on 9th November 1916 and they took over the responsibility for Hill 60 and the Caterpillar Mine. The Australian Official History describes their task, Both the drainage of the galleries and their ventilation urgently needed improvement, and the company’s first task was to effect this by system begun sinking a deep metal-lined shaft 460 feet from the main junction, and driving from its bottom a new and much closer approach. Once this was achieved they built new defensive galleries, extensions and shafts. The Germans knew that there was mining going on all over this sector and they could be heard working on their own tunnels. The Australians carried out counter mining and fired a charge of 2,500 pounds underground on 19th December 1916 destroying deep workings which the enemy had been slowly sinking through a difficult watery stratum.. This shocked the German 204th Division who had been assured by their tunnelers that there was no mining going on. The Germans in turn blew a small charge, which killed one Australian miner on 20th December 1916.

This subterranean warfare continued into 1917 with both sides losing men underground. However, by 6th June 1917, the Australians were confident that both Hill 60 and the Caterpillar mines were ready and at 3.10 a.m. on 7th June 1917 both mines were detonated. The mine at Hill 60 made a crater 60 feet deep and 260 feet wide and at the Caterpillar a crater was made that was 90 feet deep and 334 feet wide! Messines was hailed a great victory for British and it is mainly because these mines were blown just before zero hour. The 204th German Division lost 10 officers and 677 men killed by the explosions and they still lie in the ground at Hill 60 and the Caterpillar along with all those that died in the underground war. Therefore please remember that both Hill 60 and the Caterpillar are considered as war graves.

The Caterpillar Mine can be found by walking across the railway bridge next to Hill 60 and by then turning left at the pathway that follows the railway parallel to it. You will then enter a turnstile and have a copse on your right. Continue onwards and this will take you to a clearing where the Caterpillar can be viewed.

Written by specialist WW1 Guide and Author Steve Smith.