For the surface dwellers, the Western Front stretched for well over 450 miles …… but for most of these ‘other men’ – their “front” was no more than 4 feet wide.
To those who manned the trenches above – their world was a thunderous crescendo of artillery bombardments which stunned the senses and burst the eardrums. But for many of these other men who toiled deep below the surface – their war was a ‘deafening silence’.
And yet the same rain that fell on the heads of the soldiers up above …. soaked through the mud of France and Belgium – only to drip on the heads of the men below.
These men – to which I refer were the “Tunnellers” of the Royal Engineers. And they filled the ranks of the Tunnelling Companies which spent their war service, in a claustrophobic world where the very air they breathed – could turn as deadly as the poisonous gas, that was used by both sides – up above. Or where the very tunnel of which you were digging, could suddenly collapse around you and become ‘your tomb’.
IMAGE RIGHT: A brass cap badge of the Royal Engineers. There were two ‘makes’ of cap badge, which adorned the caps of the Royal Engineers – during the Great War. Whilst both generally bore the “G V” cypher, the original cap badges had voids (or holes) in the badge where there was no script or body. The latter war badges differed in that they were ‘solid’ or not voided – reducing the labour time to produce the badge and as such, were considered an ‘economy measure’.
The story of some Australian Tunnellers during the First World War has now been told; in the form of a feature film titled “Beneath Hill 60” ( to see a story which relates to this film please Click Here ). It gives us a small insight on the conditions faced by men, from both sides of the Western Front which culminates in the discharging of explosives beneath the German occupied lines on the high ground of Hill 60, near Ypres in Belgium.
But the Australians were not the first to venture underground, in this theatre of war. The stalemate which resulted in two great armies, facing off in a continuous line of trench warfare – brought about the necessity to gain some type of tactical advantage by means, other than “frontal charges”. Well before their Australian cousins began their own tunnelling war against the Turks at Gallipoli, the Royal Engineers were already involved in this new phase of warfare at certain points along the Western Front. Generally, where the opposing trenches were not too far apart …. and where the ground was somewhat stable and suitable for underground excavation, the silent war of the Tunnellers began. In fact, the first mining operations began in April of 1915 ….. (the same month that British and colonial troops would begin their landings on the Ottoman shore). And there existed no finer miners than the first batch of Welshmen who were recruited to undertake this work; from the 1st Battalion and the 3rd Battalion of the Monmouthshire Regiment – who were attached to the 1st Northumberland Field Company of the Royal Engineers.
And into this underground world came such men, as 94283 Lance Corporal Arthur CUPIS from East Finchley in London. A married man of 46, he would join the 175th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers. His war would last just eight months – when on the 14th of November, 1915 a German bombardment of the Maple Copse area would impact upon a kitchen area where men of his unit were congregated.
IMAGE LEFT: A pre-embarkation photo of Lance Corporal Arthur CUPIS of the 175th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers. The standard brass badge of the Royal Engineers is evident on his service cap. He also wears the Pattern 08 Infantry Webbing, which was issued to most troops who saw front line service. Of particular interest however, is the Pattern 1888 Lee Metford (Long Lee-Enfield) bayonet with which Arthur has been issued. Was this merely a re-issue of ‘Boer War’ surplus equipment? At a time when more modern equipment was scarce? Bearing in mind that the expansion of the British Army in late 1914 & early 1915 was outpacing the Quartermaster’s ability to kit out this rapidly growing army. Or perhaps, an example of ‘fore-thought’ on the part of some storesman – to the perceived cramped conditions which a soldier of a Tunnelling Company would face? Conditions, which would make the length of the standard Pattern 1907 bayonet impracticable? Considering the fact that Tunnellers sometimes encountered the enemy in tunnel break-throughs (which could result in vicious hand to hand combat) ….. it could be suggested that such “common sense” decisions were made – when kitting out such troops. More likely however, is the fact that many British troops at this early stage of the war, were being issued the Long Lee-Enfields which undoubtedly – a huge arsenal still existed in stores within the U.K.
The 175th Tunnelling Company had been in the front line also, since April of 1915 – starting their mining actions at Sanctuary Wood and Armagh Wood. It was in this area of Armagh Wood that Arthur’s fate would be sealed. For that bombardment which occurred on the 14th of November, 1915 would result in the death of 4 men killed outright and 13 men wounded. Of those wounded ….. Lance Corporal Arthur CUPIS – sadly would die of his wounds just two days later, on the 16th of November, 1915. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records indicate that he was laid to rest in Maple Copse Cemetery.
The war would rage for three more years, after the death of Lance Corporal Arthur CUPIS ….. and countless more lives would be lost. However, the memory of this man would linger for generations.
As with all Commonwealth Servicemen and women who lost their lives as a result of the Great War; a bronze Memorial Plaque would be struck as a tangible reminder of one man’s sacrifice on the alter of war. These plaques were issued to the next of kin of a person who died and colloquially became known as a “Dead Man’s Penny” – due to their resemblance of a large coin. Cast from the metal bronze; they were just under 5 inches in diameter (approx 120 mm) and bore the words “He died for Freedom and Honour”. The full name of the subject serviceman or woman was cast on the right hand side of the plaque. No mention was made of the subject’s rank or status; as “in death” ….. all men are considered equal. The image of ‘Britannia’ holding a trident, accompanied by a lion adorns the front of the plaque – whilst the reverse is simply plain and not generally viewed. In conjunction with this Memorial Plaque, a letter and a scroll from King George V was also sent.
IMAGE RIGHT: A copy of a ‘blank’ Memorial Plaque or “Dead Man’s Penny”. The name of the deceased serviceman would be cast in the ‘box’ area on the right hand side (above the Lion’s head). In the event of the subject being a female, the script around the border of course would read “She died for Freedom and Honour”.
The Dead Man’s Penny, or Memorial Plaque of Lance Corporal Arthur CUPIS is missing. His descendant’s would dearly love to have this memorial plaque returned to their family – so that his part played – and sacrifice made during The Great War, is never forgotten to the younger generations. Can you help? If you have this plaque in your collection ….. or know the whereabouts of this item, please contact the Medals Gone Missing Administrator.
Or if your relative was a Tunneller during the First World War, then please commemorate his service by recording his name and unit details in the COMMENTS field below. Lest We Forget.