Australian Tunnelling Companies & the film BENEATH HILL 60 – Scriptwriter David ROACH

The Australian feature film BENEATH HILL 60 is a war movie set underneath the trenches of World War 1. Their never-before told Australian story is set in 1916 – where Queensland miner Oliver WOODWARD, under-trained and having never faced hostile fire before, finds himself on the Western Front, the bloodiest battlefield in history. His new fiancee, 17 year old Marjorie, had pleaded with him not to enlist. She had only just discovered love and couldn’t believe that it could be taken from her. But men with Woodward’s underground skills are desperately needed to counter a deadly German offensive.

Young German coal miner. Ernst Wagner and Karl Babek have also been thrust into the war. They have been brought along with thousands of other men and boys, from the mining villages in Bavaria.

The soldier-miners from both sides drive their narrow tunnels under no man’s land. Attempting to out-manoeuvre and undermine each other they crate a great labyrinth of tunnels. It’s a silent and savage war where one tiny sound can turn a man from hunter to hunted, where skilled listeners are more sought after than fighters.

And after two years of claustrophobia and bloodshed, of triumph and heartbreak, it all comes down to a single moment. As infantrymen quietly fix bayonets in the darkness, Oliver Woodward crouches in a muddy bunker preparing to press a detonator that could change the course of the war….

(Above extract courtesy of the Film ‘flyer’)

IMAGE RIGHT: The Promotional Flyer which presents the Australian Feature Film “BENEATH HILL 60”, which is now available in Australia on DVD.

The tunnelling war which took place from 1915 – right through to 1918 is a part of history that seems to have been lost, amid the horror stories of trench warfare and incessant artillery barrages. In the words of Scriptwriter and Co-Producer of the film BENEATH HILL 60, David ROACH “It was not an aspect of war that was considered to be gentlemanly and an acceptable way to conduct operations. When you consider that this was a time where soldiers would line up side by side and somebody would blow a whistle to commence an attack – and the men would go ‘over the top’ and attack into No Man’s Land. The tunnelling war was a situation where men spent countless hours in a narrow tunnel, about as wide as a coffin and approximately 4 feet high. In fact, two men really could not pass each-other in these tunnels, they were that narrow. In fact, for the shooting of the film, we had to make the tunnels slightly wider, just to fit the cameras inside there”.

In a very informative and entertaining radio interview between David and 2 Ear FM hosts on the Far South Coast of New South Wales, David revealed the great extent of which he went to “get it right” and from a ‘military history’ point of view – I am pleased to say that his words were very encouraging. Special attention was paid to the finer details, such as the correct Corps and Unit badges depicted in the film and items of uniform; which are essential to give the film “creditability” from the Military enthusiast’s perspective. However, whilst he admitted that these aspects are important, it is really ‘the story’ which needs to be emphasized.

It is a very little known fact that a rather intense tunnelling war took place between Australian and Turkish miners on Gallipoli during 1915 (yet on a much smaller scale when compared to that of the Western Front). This mining war was carried out by units of the Australian Field Company Engineers, especially in the region from Russell’s Top through to Lone Pine …. and encompassing all of the areas in between; such as Popes Hill, Quinn’s Post, Courtney’s and Steele’s Post and towards German Officer’s Ridge.

Page 262 of C.E.W. BEAN’s Official History; of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 begins to detail the mining work which was commenced by Australians on the Gallipoli peninsula, beginning in June, 1915:- “With this tunnelling phase began the heaviest work undertaken at Anzac. Most of the engineers were at this stage employed underground, the brigadiers furnishing them with infantry fatigue parties for the less skilled work. An engineer would be employed picking the “face” at the tunnel head; another would shovel the loose earth into the sandbags; and six men of the infantry would carry the sandbags to the rear and empty them either along the parapet of some rearward trench or in chutes and dumps at the back of the hills. The garrison became accustomed to the sight of a mining shaft leading own from the trenches to some candle-lit tunnel 15 or 20 feet below, along which a couple of big men occasionally came dragging a sack of earth as if they were ponies in a colliery, appearing from the bowels of the earth in front and disappearing to the rear”.

IMAGE LEFT: Australian Engineers (possibly from the 2nd Field Company) at the entrance to a tunnel on ANZAC. Whilst the actual entrance is supported by timber ‘props’, it can be clearly seen that the walls to this particular trench are simply ‘excavated’, earthen walls and are devoid of any type of “sandbagging” or timber revetment. Such was the integrity of the dry soil. In fact, there are at least two tunnels which are still evident on the Gallipoli Peninsula. One such tunnel is visible on the eastern side of the roadway on the 400 Plateau and the other is viewable as you climb the dirt roadway up towards The Apex (below Chunuk Bair).

Whilst the above extract refers to action on Gallipoli, this campaign showed the need for a ‘specialist’ branch whose core function would involve specific mining operations against the enemy. With the dry and compacted soil of Gallipoli, tunnelling activity (as with the digging and forming of trenchworks) could be successfully carried out without the need for extensive timberwork and supports. The integritiy of the earth being such that the tunnels and trenches were generally just bare earth. However, in his radio interview with 2 Ear FM, Film Scriptwriter David ROACH correctly pointed out that the damp conditions of European battlefields often led to the ground becoming “water soaked bogs”. Above ground, the endless sea of mud in some areas, necessitated that any mines or earthworks excavated underground needed to be supported, using timber bracing. This was certainly specialist work and it would require ‘specially trained men’ to be able to carry out such work.

Page 180 of C.E.W. BEAN’s Official History; of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 indicates:- “Sometimes the British Government inquired whether some service specially required could be undertaken by Australia; at other times – occasionally on a suggestion emanating from an Ausralian profession or industry – the Commonwealth Government asked if the offer of some specialist unit would be welcomed…….it was on the initiative of Australia that the Mining Battalion and Heavy Artillery Group had been raised and dispatched to England”.

However, if General BIRDWOOD had his way, this Mining Battalion may have come to an abrupt end as quickly as it had been formed. With the re-organisation of the AIF in Egypt post Gallipoli; it had been decided to form four PIONEER BATTALIONS. In basic terms, these Pioneer battalions are a “cross” between the duties of an Engineer Unit – coupled with that of a trained Infantryman. Therefore, Pioneers could be asked to perform engineering tasks or to man the front lines as Infantry. To provide a skilled nucleus for his four Pioneer Battalions, Birdwood proposed to break up the Mining Battalion (which, in March of 1916 was currently sailing from Australia) and distributing these specialists into the ranks of the Pioneers. The Mining Battalion however, had been formed for a particular purpose on the suggestion of Professors DAVID & SKEATS (whilst the Gallipoli campaign was being fought), who had urged that the exceptional resources of Australia in miners, mining engineers and special machinery should be utilised at the Dardenelles or elsewhere. An offer was accordingly made to the British Government and accepted, and much enthusiasm was spent in providing the unit with special machinery. This corps, under the command of Lt.-Col. FEWTRELL, sailed in March 1916 – direct for England. Senator Pearce, on receiving Birdwood’s proposal to break up the Mining Battalion and distribute it’s men amongst the Pioneer Battalions; cabled the War Office asking that “in view of the expense and ingenuity which created it for a particular purpose, this should not be done”. As it turned out, the War Office had no intention of employing the corps otherwise than for mining. (Reference – footnote pages 64 to 65, Volume III C.E.W. BEAN’s Official History; of Australia in the War of 1914-1918)

IMAGE RIGHT: An extract of the “Colour Patches of the Australian Forces 1914-1918” which appears on page 968 of Volume III C.E.W. BEAN’s Official History; of Australia in the War of 1914-1918) This image shows the purple “T” which signifies the respective Tunnelling Companies. (Click on image to enlarge) This type of colour patch would be worn by the Tunneller, on the sleeve of his woollen tunic, near the point of the shoulder.

So, drawing upon the Australian miners employed in civil service before the war – the Australian Mining Battalion was formed. Men from the Illawarra and Hunter Valley of New South Wales, far North Queensland and other mining areas were recruited. Serving under the colour patch of a purple “T”, this Mining unit was later formed into the First, Second and Third Tunnelling Companies (the colour purple signifying that these units fell under the umbrella of ‘Engineer Corps’)

IMAGE LEFT: A photograph from the famous ‘Frank Hurley collection’ shows a Communication tunnel, 25 feet below the surface which was excavated by men of the 1st Tunnelling Company in the Ypres sector. Being a communications tunnel, it is quite large in construction. This image is not a good representative of the majority of the tunnel work which was dug in the area. As indicated by Scriptwriter and Co-Producer of “Beneath Hill 60” – Mr David ROACH – the actual tunnels which were sunk towards the enemy lines were quite small, prohibiting two men from passing each other. The wet conditions of the French and Belgian countryside (as mentioned in the body of this narrative), necessitate the use of timber supports. There has even been instances of tunnels being rediscovered in French and Belgian fields in the past decade, their contents being well preserved by the mud.

Australia is becoming a leading force in the film industry. Having produced such great films, such as “Breaker Morant” and Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” in the past, it is encouraging that film producers are continuing to bring films of historical content to the big screen. Being the visual medium that it is, films such as Beneath Hill 60 carry a very large responsibility to the general public. Not only to entertain, but also to educate our modern society – as to the courage and sacrifice made by our previous generations. The story of these brave Tunnellers (on both sides of the front line) has rarely been told before. The film BENEATH HILL 60 has changed that and at last, their voices will be heard through the script of David ROACH.

IMAGE RIGHT: The 1914-1915 Star, British War Medal & Victory Medal which were awarded to participants of the Commonwealth Military Forces, during the First World War.

For those men who served in the Mining Corps (and Tunnelling Companies) who left in the March convoy of 1916, their date of departure from Australia would not have made them eligible for the 1914-1915 Star. Apart from perhaps a ‘unit badge’, that a veteran may have worn on the lapel of his suit for example, there is nothing in the form of “war medals” which would distinguish a Tunneller from any other type of serviceman. David ROACH indicated that when the war finished, the vast majority of the troops were brought home to the accolades of the public in marches and parades. As the Tunnellers were mostly engineers and specialists in construction, many were kept in Europe after the cessation of hostilities, to help “rebuild” the countries which were devastated by war. Subsequently, when these diggers returned to Australia – the parades were all ‘over’ and the world – to some extent had “moved on”. So these men simply had to return to civil life with little recognition.

IMAGE LEFT: The British War Medal & the Victory Medal.

NOTE: Marlene GEE from Australia has discovered that her uncle Sapper Leonard Albert BENNETT (Service Number 7167) was a member of the 2nd Tunnelling Company. He embarked on the 11th of May, 1917 aboard H.M.A.T. Shropshire from Port Melbourne and as such, became entitled to the British War Medal and Victory Medal for his war service. Marlene has no knowledge of the whereabouts of these medals and they may in fact be missing. Do you know where these missing war medals are or are they in your collection. If so, please contact the Medals Gone Missing Administrator and help to reunite them with Leonard’s descendants.

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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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6 Responses to Australian Tunnelling Companies & the film BENEATH HILL 60 – Scriptwriter David ROACH

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  3. liam says:

    great movie

  4. angus davis says:

    I was reading a review of the movie, Below Hill Sixty, and was suprised to see that my fathers name was mentioned as one of the canadian soldiers who were \laying explosives during WW1. it made me want to get in touch with the writer David Roach and fill him in on one of the participants in Hill 60. I would like to get Mr Roach address and write him – my dad wrote his memoirs and mr roach may be interested in knowing of the experiences of one of the canadians.

    My email is on this message but my mailing address is Angus Davis, 308 11th Ave South, Cranbrook, B. C. Canada, V1C 2P8

  5. gary says:

    Hello there Angus. Thank you for making contact with us. David Roach is a wonderful man and as a result of his movie, an authority on the Australian Tunnellers. No doubt, he will find your information most interesting. I will make contact with him and pass on your request. Yours gratefully, Gary Traynor Medals Gone Missing Administrator.

  6. Pingback: Missing British War Medal Returned of an AIF Tunneller Who Found Himself Serving in the B.G.R.O.C (4th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company) – Corporal Andrew Ross FAULKNER | Medals Gone Missing

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