A Tunneller Of The Royal Engineers – L/Cpl Arthur CUPIS – 175th Tunnelling Company

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.

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About gary

Gary Traynor is the volunteer Administrator of the Militaria based website MEDALSGONEMISSING. The aim of this "NOT FOR PROFIT" website is to reunite families, with lost War Medals and other items of militaria. Anything from medals to items of uniform. What Gary refers to as their "lost heritage". He has been actively involved in the Militaria world and researching of Military History for well over 30 years. As a result, Gary also conducts valuations and offers advice on all items of militaria. He has acted as advisor to a number of television and Foxtel productions; including Sir Tony Robinson's "Tour of Duty" series which featured on the History Channel. Gary is a field historian and conducts tours to Gallipoli, The Western Front, Kokoda and many other major battle sites around the world. He was a member of the Australian Army Reserve (UNSWR & 4/3 RNSWR) and served for 23 years with the New South Wales Police Force. He is perhaps the only person who has been employed at the Australian War Memorial in all three capacities .... as a volunteer, part time and full time employee .... starting as a qualified tour guide, working in the public galleries as an Information Assistant and finally Assistant Curator in Military Heraldry & Technology. Medalsgonemissing is a website that will assist you in locating your family's lost war medals and other awards. If you have an ancestor who served in any of the British Commonwealth Armed Services at any time - and whose medals are lost/stolen or simply missing....then so long as the medals are out there - this site will help you to locate them. However the site also contains articles of interest in relation to Military History, War Memorials & Uniforms / kit. Please explore our website as there is sure to be something of interest to you.
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14 Responses to A Tunneller Of The Royal Engineers – L/Cpl Arthur CUPIS – 175th Tunnelling Company

  1. Chris Nicholls says:

    My maternal great uncle, Fred Seddon, transferred from the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, with whom he had enlisted on 9 November 1914, to the 258th Tunnelling Regiment, Royal Engineers, on 9 July 1916. On 26 January 1917 he was ‘rated’ as a tunneller from 1 January 1917 after training and his pre-existing rank of corporal was confirmed. Fred did not have any prior tunnelling or mining experience as prior to enlistment he had been a shop assistant in the Co-Operative store, Leigh, Lancashire. He survived the First World War (and the 2nd) and died of natural causes in 1970. I do not have any details of specific operations in which he participated but he was awarded the Victory Medal which confirms his service in France.

  2. gary says:

    Thank you for sharing that with us Chris. I am really surprised that he had NO mining experience in civil life. To go from ‘shopkeeper’ to a tunneller in combat must have been a frightening transformation. Do you have any photos of him in uniform? If so, you may post this image and any other stories that you may have on him; on this site. It makes for a very appropriate commemoration of his service. Yours gratefully. Gary Traynor (Medals Gone Missing Administrator)

  3. Chris Nicholls says:

    I do not have any photographs of my great uncle Fred, although I am contacting my one surviving relative from his children’s generation to see if they have any. The only other information I have is a story that uncle Fred was gassed during the Great War. I met him one day in about 1963 and all I recall was a bronchitic and asthmatic old man. Regrettably, I was too young (about 14) to be interested in his war service. His service record does not show any sickness related to gas and I wonder whether in reality he suffered the ill-effects of carbon monoxide, which is mentioned in several accounts of the tunnelling. Still, he was over 80 when he died a few weeks after my grandfather, his elder brother.

  4. gary says:

    Carbon monoxide was certainly a killer in those cramped underground conditions where ventilation relied upon the artificial circulation of air. Sadly, there are countless documented instances of men in the 1930’s and later, walking around with terrible respiratory problems. So if carbon monoxide poisoning was not the cause, who is to say that he was not affected by gas to some extent and that his records are incomplete? Not to mention the possibility of foreign material or dust in his lungs. I have one friend who was a coal miner for most of his life, and developed Emphysema as a result of his mining service. So just because they were underground and away from the turmoil above ground, the risks and dangers to their health were no less dire. Thank you again Chris for your input and please keep us posted if you find anything out. Kind regards Gary Traynor (Administrator)

  5. Mark Rowley says:

    My great grandfather James Rowley served in the 175th Tunnelling company until his death on March 08th 1916. He died from shrapnel to the hip from around the Hill 60 area if i remember correctly…sorry i have the company records but am writing this from memory. He was a miner and came from a mining family, i was suprised to read in the old newspaper records at my local library of the aggressive recruitment tactics of the army at collieries.
    Unfortunatly nobody in my family knows what has happened to his medals he recieved, although more of a loss to me is the fact no letters remain from what he possibly sent, considering he had a child born not long after entering the theatre of war i would be suprised if there wasnt correspondance between James and his wife.

  6. gary says:

    Thank you for your comment Mark. Unfortunately, with regards to letters, my family is the same. Four great uncles went away to war and NOT ONE family letter survives. What a shame that our ancestors did not think to preserve such correspondence. Lest we forget James ROWLEY this Remembrance Day, 2010. Yours gratefully, Gary Traynor (Medals Gone Missing Administrator)

  7. Alan Tomlinson says:

    My great uncle was in the 175th Company, Royal Anglesea (Tunnelling Company) of the Royal Engineers and was awarded the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) for action at Hooge, 1915. He, died of wounds early 1916. I would like to know any information about him or make contact with friends of the 175th Royal Anglesea (Tunnelling Company). I have visited Hooge recently.
    His name was Thomas Pearson THOMPSON with the service number 96903. He was my grandmother’s brother, whom I did not know existed until a couple of years ago. He was the husband of Florence Leveson THOMPSON of 574 Hartsill Road, Stoke-on-Trent. Any info or advice would be helpful ….. thanks Alan.

  8. gary says:

    Hello Alan, thank you for sharing that with us. If anybody out there has an association with the 175th Company, Royal Anglesea …… then please make contact with Alan through the Medals Gone Missing website. Gary Traynor (Administrator)

  9. David Price says:

    I read with interest of L/Cpl Arthur Cupis, my Grandfather was a tunneller too. Sapper Arthur Price, 176th Tunnelling Company. hewas killed in action 30th November 1915, aged 35 yrs, and lies in the Gorre British and Indian cemetery,at Beuvry, Pas-de-Calais,he was in France approx. 6 months, a miner from Barry South Wales. We know nothing of why or how he was killed. He left a widow and three children, 8,6 and 4, yrs. there must have been thousands left in this position, live was very tough for her with no relatives near to help. I anyone should know of the whereabouts of his 2 “memorial Plaque” or death penny I would be most grateful Arthur Price, 79435, 176th Tunnelling Co. Royal Engineers. We have just come back from seeing his grave, it was a wonderful experience.
    thank you
    Dave Price

  10. gary says:

    Hello Harrison, I have checked and cannot find any backlinks that looked suspect ….. can you please explain further? Thankyou Gary

  11. Vernon Thompson says:

    how do I get in touch with alan Tomlinson?

  12. Vernon Thompson says:

    I would like to make contact with alan Tomlinson as Thomas Pearson Thompson was my grandfather.

  13. gary says:

    Hello Vernon, thank you for making contact. I will gladly forward your email address to Alan who I am sure will be very pleased to hear from you. Kind regards. Gary Traynor (Administrator)

  14. smokeater says:

    My grandfather, James Box, was a tunneler from Stoke. I don’t have any info on him. He survived and moved to Barnsley to work at Grimethorpe. He was killed there in 1931 and his name is on the Miner’s memorial.

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