JF Ptak Science Books Post 922
"Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.
Take it on the run, on the run, on the run.
Hear them calling you and me,
Every Son of Liberty.
Hurry right away, no delay, go today.
Make your Daddy glad to have had such a lad.
Tell your sweetheart not to pine,
To be proud her boy's in line."
--Opening of George M. Cohan's "Over There"
It is difficult to think of soldiers fighting one another across hedgerows or trenches, hiding behind earth, creating a death-vacuum on the land in between--but worse yet would be fighting in these scenarios underground.
Finding this large double-page illustration in The Illustrated London News1gave me a physical reaction like the one I get when thinking about the discarded Dalton Trumbo’s2 anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun. The novel’s main character (Joe Bonham) is virtually encased in his own mind, having lost his arms, legs and face in an explosion on a WWI battlefield—the story is told from his bedridden perspective; dark, bandaged, alone, his mind and brain functioning, and with little means of communication or control over his body. .Among other obvious things, it makes me feel a peculiar stuffy coldness. [The two sets of four images following should be viewed as two-parts of one long image, the bottom part being on the right.]
And so too when I look at these soldiers tunneling under a dead battlefield, working their way slowly—a foot an hour—towards the enemy trenches, desperately trying to blow a hole in an immovable object resistant to infantry and artillery. The soldiers—sappers—were sent in to do a job that could no longer be accomplished above the ground.
This sort of warfare is extremely old, though the name is not, being about 150 years old. These soldiers were forward combat engineers, and had training across a number of different areas—they were responsible for many technical chores, like building (and blowing up) bridges, laying/clearing minefields, general demolition, defense construction, and, of course, fighting. It could be a tremendously difficult job, unimaginable.
The “sapp” part of “sapper” comes from the French “sappe”, which refers to the other main part of their job during WWI, which was digging advancing trenches, a zigzag construction of a long horizontal half-hole which allowed an infantry force to slowly advance towards an enemy’s entrenched position. Another part was to tunnel under the enemy's lines, and then blow them to smithereeens so that a successful attack could be launched into the weakened position.
Here’s what I think about when I think about these men doing this job: that two teams, British and German, start to tunnel towards each other’s lines, and somehow, in the middle of the battlefield, somehow manage to dig directly towards one another, their tunnels literally colliding. Hand-to-hand combat through the opening connecting the two sapper tunnels, then gunfire. Alerted, the artillery from each side zero-in on what is suspected to be the opening end of the tunnels, pummel them, destroying the access. So now, both sets in what is now virtually one tunnel, are fighting in the dark. Even though the topside is only two feet away, any hole would open into the killing zone, making it impossible to escape that way. It would be a bad place to be.
1. The issue is 27 Feb 1915. The illustration is entitled "They Sent us in front with a Fuse an' a Mine', Sapping and Mining Under the Enemy's Trenches". The first half of the title is from Kipling's "Sappers": They send us in front with a fuse an' a mine , To blow up the gates that are rushed by the Line...
2. Trumbo has an interesting history, to put it mildly. An old Communist, he once gave up his old associates to the FBI at the start of WWII--an act he later thought of as being stupid and wrong. It also had the opposite effect for him--he thought he was being patriotic, but the FBI was more interested in him than his information. He would get eaten up by McCarthyist operatives and denied HUAC any information on any of the famous "Hollywood Ten". He got a year in jail and was blacklisted, booted out of LA. He came back--mostly under someone else's name (see the link above for his screenwriting credits, which are substantial)--and acknowledged shortly before he died.