JOHN NORTON - GRIFFITHS and The Clay Kickers
By Terry Middleton O.B.E

Major John Norton - Griffiths "Empire Jack"

Major John Norton - Griffiths "Empire Jack"

John Norton - Griffiths was a man of action. He had already led an eventful life even before the First World War gave him the opportunity to put into practice his "brainwave" idea which would culminate in the Battle of Messines in July 1917. But it wasn't easy for him to convince the high command of the British Army, who were locked into a mindset of military tactics which had changed little since the Crimean War.

This envisaged movement - attack and counter attack, led by cavalry supported by heavy artillery barrages, ground gained and sometimes lost, but always movement. The Germans had a similar mindset, so when war broke out, and whole swathes of territory in Belgium and France were gained, the enemy crushed into submission by the overwhelming numbers of men available to the invader, it was just going to be a matter of time before The Kaiser would lead his victorious army down the Champs Elysees.

As it turned out, the British Expeditionary Force, far fewer in numbers than
the all-conquering Germans - with the help of the tiny Belgian Army and the seriously weakened French Army - was able to stop the German advance initially in western Flanders, centred on the medieval town of Ypres. This was important both militarily and politically. Britain had joined the war because of a 50-year old treaty which guaranteed the independence of Belgium. By the time Britain had mobilised its reserves, almost all of Belgium had been overrun by the German Army, and they were pushing westwards towards northern France. The BEF managed to garrison Ypres, which was enough to hold up the German advance. So the two armies faced each other, Germany occupying the so-called "high ground" - if there was such a feature in the flat Flanders plain, and the British holding a "Salient", jutting into German held territory. Ypres was, in effect, an area within shelling range of the German guns from the north, east and south.

Stalemate. Both armies dug in. Trenches on each side. No hope of gallant cavalry charges, no hope of movement. Within a very few weeks, the trench system extended from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier in the south. None of the obsolete military manuals seemed to have an answer. A fresh eye was needed. On the scene galloped (or rather drove in his Rolls Royce Landaulette) John Norton - Griffiths.

Norton Griffiths was known by the nickname "Empire Jack". He had fought in the Boer War, the Matabeleland and Mashona wars in Rhodesia, established a contracting company working on civil engineering projects in Egypt, Transvaal, Angola, Ivory Coast, Australia and New York.

He managed, during this period, to get himself elected Conservative MP for Wednesbury. His electioneering was basic and attractive. He hammered the superiority of the British Empire over all other nations, and would brook no opposition whatever to his vision of a world dominated by Britain. He was well named Empire Jack.

One of his smaller contracts was a tunnelled drainage system in Manchester being carried out for the Corporation. The men were driving the tunnels by a method known as "clay kicking", or "working on the cross". It was ideal for the clay subsoil of Manchester. They sat in the tunnels, their backs supported on a wooden backrest (the "cross") their feet pointed at the face. With a light spade-like implement they dug out the clay ahead which a mate passed back for disposal.

Clay - Kicker, with grafting tool (left) and "cross" (right)

Clay - Kicker, with grafting tool (left) and "cross" (right)

It came suddenly to Norton - Griffiths that these men might have something important to contribute to the war. The mud, and the waterlogged clay, which clogged men and machines on the front was becoming famous. To the Manchester sewer diggers, - who called themselves Moles - that kind of ground was just right.

He wrote to the War Office asking that he should be allowed to take "a handful of Moles" out to France. The men could tunnel underneath the German trenches and destroy the defences, which could then be seized by British Infantry. This was too much for the mindset of the War Office, and the request was filed. However, in December 1914, the Germans fired the first mine of the war, destroying 1,000 yards of the British trench system at Festubert. Suddenly, Norton - Griffith's letter was found, and he was invited to meet Sir John French, the C-in-C of the BEF. With the backing of Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, Norton - Griffiths put his proposal. French's reaction was to agree with Norton - Griffiths, and he authorised the recruitment of a number of clay kickers and coal miners to be sent to the Ypres Salient, where the Germans were digging tunnels underneath the British lines at a place called Hill 60. So called because when the Ypres - Commines railway was being constructed in the 1880s, the spoil from the construction had been heaped at the side of the railway cutting, to a height of 60 feet.

The deployment of the first wave of tunellers was delayed by nearly three months. The main reason - a dispute within the War Office about the status of these men. Norton - Griffiths envisaged "his men" forming a separate unit outside the usual army establishment. He was particularly opposed to them being absorbed into the Royal Engineers. He also wanted control over recruitment, and most importantly how much per day they were to be paid. The army was adamant on this point. The "moles" would be classed as Sappers - Royal Engineers' private soldiers - and would be paid the going rate of 2s/2d per day. Eventually, it was agreed that the tunnellers be formed into separate companies, each to consist of 5 officers and 269 men, with "tunnellers mates" attached as labourers from infantry battalions as and when needed. Norton - Griffiths held out on the question of pay, and it was agreed that the tunnellers should be recruited separately and be paid at the rate of 6s/ per day. Eight Tunnelling Companys were established numbered 170 to 178 Tunnelling Companies R.E.

Recruitment was an added problem, but easily solved. Adverts were placed in newspapers in mining areas, such as South Wales, Staffordshire and the North East. Volunteers were sought for "specialist mining work", applications to be forwarded to the offices of Norton - Griffiths MP in Westminster. One such volunteer was John McCreesh.

Mc Creesh was born in Armagh, came to NE England as a young lad, got a job in a chemical works on Tyneside and eventually found his way to a new coal mine at Byermoor, NW Durham. He quickly settled down, by dint of hard work, became a hewer at the colliery, joined the St John Ambulance Brigade, where he learnt valuable skills which would stand him in good stead later. On the outbreak of war, he immediately applied to the Durham Light Infantry. They turned him down - too old (40), too small (5ft3in), sight in one eye only. Two further attempts to enlist failed. Reading a copy of the Newcastle Journal one day, he spotted the Norton - Griffiths advertisement. Amazingly, (but true), he promptly boarded a train at Newcastle, and finished up in the offices of Norton - Griffiths in Westminster. He was immediately signed up as a tunneller on 6s/ per day and sent to the Royal Engineers depot at Chatham, where he was equipped with half a uniform. He paused long enough to send a telegram to his wife to the effect that he had signed up - she didn't know where he was! Two days later he finished up with a dozen others at a place called Hooge, 3 miles from Ypres, where the British and German lines were all of 30 feet apart.

……..102169 Sapper John McCreesh  R.E.

……..102169 Sapper John McCreesh  R.E.

This was to be Norton - Griffiths' demonstration of how military mining could work if it was well organised, well directed and done on a large enough scale.

Major Hunter Cowan, a regular soldier, was tasked with forming a new Tunnelling Company, 175, and he placed Lt Geoffrey Cassels in charge of the first wave of new arrivals, all twelve of them, including John McCreesh, who had been snatched into the army, rushed through fitting out at Chatham and sent to the front without a moment to catch their breath.

An initial attempt to sink a shaft from the relative safety of a disused stable had to be abandoned. The object was a ruined chateau which was being used as a base for German troops and equipment, across the Menin Road from the British front line trenches. The difficulty was that wet, running sand came almost to the surface, and it was impossible to pump dry. Cassels moved his men (by now growing in number) 200 yards to the west, to the ruins of a gardener's cottage with a deep cellar. This time things were better. The shaft was sunk and at 35 feet, came into contact with blue clay. Much better tunnelling conditions. Work started on a gallery aiming for the chateau. But after a short while, Cassels became aware that the German supply base had been moved. Very little point now in blowing up an unoccupied structure.

But there was a better target. The Germans were in the process of constructing twin concrete redouts to the left of the chateau. These were quite substantial constructions, obviously heavy and solid. It was calculated that a main tunnel 190 ft long would reach the nearest of the twin redouts, and a branch tunnel 100 ft in length would terminate under the second redout. However, the branch tunnel was found to be off course, too late to correct, since a date of July 19th had been fixed by Norton - Griffiths to demonstrate to the "Top Brass" the efficacy of military mining.

Cassels abandoned the branch tunnel, and determined on something "bold and risky". If he placed a large enough charge underneath the right redout, and positioned it correctly, then enough material could be heaved into the air to come down on top of the left redout.

And that is what happened. Thanks to the acquisition of 3,500 lbs of Ammonal (an American explosive with the lifting power three and a half times that of gunpowder and never before used by the British Army), the observing "brass" saw redout number one rise, topple to the left, and come down on top of redout number two. It was estimated that 600 Germans were killed, and men of the Middlesex Regiment were able to advance, seize the resultant crater and advance the British line by 120 yards.

Lieutenant-General Sir Edmund Allenby, commander of 5th Corps, and Sir John French, CinC of the BEF were on hand to offer their congratulations. Cassels was awarded an immediate MC.

Thus was established the effectiveness of a properly organised tunnelling operation. It gave Norton - Griffiths the inspiration to advocate a much bigger scheme - the mining of the whole of the Messines Ridge which would lead eventually to the blowing of 21 massive mines in July 1917. But that is for another occasion.

John McCreesh was transferred to the newly formed 250th Company in January 1916. He spent a year and a half working on the Messines mines, became the leader of the company's Mine Rescue Brigade and gave lectures to the Tunnelling Companies' officers on mine recue tactics. He was killed in action on October 16, 1917 by a stray German shell at St Eloi. He is buried in Bedford House CWGC cemetery 2 miles south of Ypres. And he was my grandfather.

Terry Middleton O.B.E.

Sources: Service records of 102169 SapperJohn McCreesh RE, National Archives.
"War Undergound" Alexander Barrie, London 1961
"Beneath Flanders Fields" Barton, Doyle and Vandwalle, Spellmount Ltd, 2004
"Ypres Salient Battlefield Guide" Tonie and Valmai Holt, Leo Cooper, 1997