The most famous symbol of the worker going to war in 1914–18 is the Pals’ Battalions, each drummed up in a working-class area, from Salford to Hull. In these, men would fight beside those they knew.
It was a horrendous error never repeated. Men in the Pals saw friends, fellow workers and brothers die. Families lost multiple sons in a flash. Communities were bereft of all their young men, sometimes in a single day.
For the military it was one way of recruiting tough men who were up to physical challenges. Yet soldiering offered many workers a relief from harder labour.
George Ramsdall was a pony driver in the pit near Wood End, Staffordshire, by 17. When he enlisted early on, he got better pay, respect, excitement, plus the sense of doing duty and making a difference. George is my great-great-uncle – like many people, I am learning about the war through a personal link with it.
In a family photo, his cap shows the Royal Berkshire Regiment’s dragon insignia. But he now lies under an Ypres gravestone marked ‘Royal Engineers’, and his transfer reflects how valuable miners were to wartime Britain, on two fronts.
With military conscription in 1916, mining was put on a list of reserved occupations drawn up to safeguard fuel production, munitions manufacture and other essential industries. The nation and its war machine needed coal as well as cannon fodder.
But the Army made good use of miners who had enlisted early. In 1916 George Ramsdall was transferred to the 173rd Tunnelling Company (Royal Engineers). They dug a deep attack HQ at Yorkshire Trench – today the best-preserved at Ypres. George is buried nearby at Bard Cottage Cemetery, killed on June 17, 1917.
A few days earlier and a few miles away, 19 mines packed with explosive had been detonated under German lines, killing 10,000 soldiers instantly. This, too, was the work of the sappers, who had revived the medieval siege tactic of undermining. Around Ypres, this meant horrendous work in treacherous clay beds, in danger from gas and suffocation, and in complete silence so the enemy would not hear.
Messines, with its mine blasts and tanks, ended the era of total trench deadlock – and of mutual bloodletting as the prime strategy. More men were now needed to stoke the British industrial war machine than to fight.
John Garth is the author of ‘Tolkien and the Great War’.
Tomorrow’s feature will be about the living and working conditions for our workers.