LEST WE FORGET

Armistice Day is 11 November. We pause to observe the Two Minute Silence at 11.00am on this day every year because at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, World War I ended and 2018 marks 100 years.
During this time, we remember those who have made sacrifices for the freedom we enjoy today.

Miners and the First World War

At home and abroad, the coal miners of Great Britain made an enormous contribution to the war effort during the years 1914 to 1918. Great waves of young pitmen rushed to enlist, 191,170 of them responding to Kitchener’s call to arms within seven months of the start of hostilities, representing about one in five of all mining personnel (men, boys and women). By the summer of 1915 250,750 workers had left their collieries for military service. Some mines were so seriously depleted of labour, for instance in Durham, that a two-shift system had to be introduced in order to keep production going, and within a few weeks, several of the larger Yorkshire collieries ‘lost’ more than half of their key workers. Those miners ‘left behind’ worked extra hard to produce the coal that the country demanded to keep the home fires burning and drive a huge military machine. Despite the government’s mine-recruitment campaign, there remained a serious shortfall of labour, making the achievements of the coal-getters, still largely by pick and shovel, even more significant. These were sadly forgotten achievements, as were the contributions of so many women and girls, on the pit tops and in the homes, surely the greatest unpaid workforce imaginable.

At home and abroad, the coal miners of Great Britain made an enormous contribution to the war effort during the years 1914 to 1918. Great waves of young pitmen rushed to enlist, 191,170 of them responding to Kitchener’s call to arms within seven months of the start of hostilities, representing about one in five of all mining personnel (men, boys and women). By the summer of 1915 250,750 workers had left their collieries for military service. Some mines were so seriously depleted of labour, for instance in Durham, that a two-shift system had to be introduced in order to keep production going, and within a few weeks, several of the larger Yorkshire collieries ‘lost’ more than half of their key workers. Those miners ‘left behind’ worked extra hard to produce the coal that the country demanded to keep the home fires burning and drive a huge military machine. Despite the government’s mine-recruitment campaign, there remained a serious shortfall of labour, making the achievements of the coal-getters, still largely by pick and shovel, even more significant. These were sadly forgotten achievements, as were the contributions of so many women and girls, on the pit tops and in the homes, surely the greatest unpaid workforce imaginable.

Although patriotism played its part in recruitment, for many miners joining the Colours had other advantages, including regular pay and regular meals; and of course, escape from what was a hellish and highly dangerous occupation. In 1913, 1,753 miners were killed at work and a staggering 178,000 were injured. Apart from in the communities in which these men worked, there was little or no public awareness of the day to day fatalities; but when 439 men and boys – and a rescue worker – died in the Universal Colliery disaster at Senghenydd in the same year, the world’s presses jumped into action, and Parliament once again woke up to discuss safety in mines, safety that was so disgracefully ignored by the owners at Senghenydd, whose ‘punishment’ was scandalously minimal. Yet in South Wales, where the miners were perceived by much of the press as a ‘militant’ and ‘disruptive’ force – they were passionate enough to fight for their rights and over 40,000 of them enlisted.

Still largely lost in the background and unaccounted for was the silent but slow and relentless toll caused by industrial disease. It is not surprising, therefore, that so many pit lads and their mates downed their shovels and picks to ‘see the world’, so sadly unaware of what lay ahead.

For some young miners the initial call to arms was an invitation to ‘see the world’, for what was generally perceived as a short interlude, a few months away from their families and communities.

Although miners served in all the theatres of war it was in France and Flanders, on the Western Front, where they were most obvious. As a fit and skilled workforce, used to dealing with adversity and so co-operative when under extreme pressure, they became a ‘most wanted’ workforce in military contexts. In Pioneer corps, for example, they had vital roles in creating and maintaining hundreds of miles of trenches. It has only been relatively recently, thanks to Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong and the work of military historians such as Peter Barton, that the role of miners as tunnellers in the secret but often spectacular ‘underground war’ against their Germans opponents – for which there was considerably empathy – has become widely known. Specially recruited for (or attached to) the Royal Engineers, these men showed exceptional bravery throughout the conflict, one veteran miner-tunneller, William Hacket, awarded the Victoria Cross, sadly posthumously, for his extreme and unselfish gallantry at Givenchy. On the pages of newspapers in any coalfield area are countless stories of former miners who were lost or killed in action, and/or given military honours. Almost 50 VCs were awarded to former miners during the War, an extraordinary statistic that we should be aware. The physical stature of some miners did not go unnoticed, when they were recruited to serve on the Bantam regiments; and they were also prominent in other, somewhat forgotten areas, such as part of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), as stretcher bearers and first-aiders, a role that they had experience and training in the mines. And of course, ‘mine rescue’ became an integral part of the tunnelling war referred to above.

Most of the c.120,000 former miners who survived the war and were in a reasonably fit state of health on discharge returned to the pit where they were previously employed or at least tried to. Unemployment, poverty and disputes ravaged coalfield communities yet again during the early 1920s, paradoxically at a time when war memorials and rolls of honour were being unveiled.

It is only really through individual family stories that miners’ contributions can be properly appreciated. We should never forget the role and bravery of miners in the Great War, irrespective of nationality.

Additional

By January 1917, after conscription had been introduced, and when mineworkers were supposedly classed as a ‘reserved’ occupation, recruitment continued, increasing the total to 282,200. This was due to the great demand for skilled miners for use in tunnelling and other specialist areas of the military services, and despite the great need for increasing coal output for the war effort. And by the end of the war it is estimated that the aggregate number of miners who served in the Great War was about half a million, an astonishing statistic.

With thanks to Brian Elliott https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Brian-Elliott/a/184