Skip to main content

John Norton-Griffiths MP (1871–1930)

"We wrecked millions of stuff and machinery. The Boche will get nothing."

The First World War has traditionally been depicted as one of trench warfare, producing a war of attrition and stalemate. The image of countless troops being sent over the top to their death is synonymous with the conflict. Whilst undoubtedly this is a fair reflection of the war, there was a more tactical battle taking place beneath the ground; one aimed at avoiding mass British casualties during attacks and eliminating the enemy by stealth and surprise.

John Norton-Griffiths MP was the spearhead behind such efforts and his drive to implement the tactics of tunnel warfare led to the recruitment of 20,000 miners and engineers. Norton-Griffiths had a meteoric rise as a mining entrepreneur seeking to capitalise on the opportunities emanating from the British Empire. In 1889 he gained his first experience working in the gold mines of Johannesburg, learning about the use of tunnelling and dynamite for the extraction process. He quickly became a deputy manager at one of the gold mines and was involved and arrested in the botched Jameson Raid (1895–96) in the Transvaal.

Mining magnate


His first big mining operation came in 1902, excavating the terrain of the Ivory Coast for its gold reserves. From 1905–08 he led on the construction of the Benguela railway in what is now Angola. With the backing of financiers, he had formed his own company in 1909 and won a multitude of contracts that included Yarmouth and Weston-Super-Mare piers, Southsea promenade, parts of the London Underground and work as far afield as Canada and Azerbaijan.

However, more significantly, he had been tasked with constructing the Battersea to Deptford drainage system and also in 1913 was contracted to lay the sewage system in Manchester. It was this ready pool of workers with a knowledge of tunnelling that allowed him to form a regiment aimed at changing the dynamics of the First World War.

In January 1910 he was elected as a Conservative MP for Wednesbury, standing on a platform to protect British trade and extolling the virtues of the British Empire. Some of his earliest contributions in the Commons included asking for reform of the House of Lords, albeit allowing territories that were part of the British Empire to have representation. In 1913 he also asked Ministers to provide relief to the families and children of workers striking in the Midlands.

As Whitehall prepared for war at the end of July 1914, Norton-Griffiths was like many enthused by the prospect of a decisive and quick victory against the Germans. Advertising in the Pall Mall Gazette, he encouraged former soldiers in the Boer War to enlist, leading to the formation of the 2nd King Edward's Horse regiment.

By January 1915 fighting had resulted in deadlock and there were already signs that the German military were adapting to the new conditions. In December 1914, Indian troops situated close to Festubert were killed when a vertical blast from below ripped through their trench, followed by scores of German infantry attacking over the top.

The recruitment of miners


Similar attacks were replicated and Norton-Griffiths believed that his experience in tunnelling and engineering could counter anything the Germans had at their disposal. His ideas filtered up the military chain and Lord Kitchener ordered 10,000 'clay kickers' to be recruited. Drawing on men from his own projects and tapping into mining regions, he recruited over 200 men in the first week.

They had the unique distinction of being in a military unit yet with no actual military training or experience.

Nine tunnelling companies were quickly created that fell under the remit of the Royal Engineers. As no formal military command existed for the miners, Norton-Griffiths instructed the men to use their skills for defensive purposes in order to detect German tunnels approaching British positions.

Norton-Griffiths introduced a range of innovations to assist with the tunnelling, in what was an an incredibly dangerous and arduous process:

"The tunneller lay on his back, at 45 degrees to the floor of the tunnel, and facing the work-face, supported by a wooden back-rest shaped like a crucifix. He dug away at the wall into clay before him, using a special long-bladed light spade between his feet. The clay was hauled out by the digger's mate, who worked behind him with another man who helped him load it into sacks to be dragged to the rear. A second team lined the tunnel with wooden props to prevent it from collapsing."

The development of tunnel warfare


One of the keys to British success lay in detecting enemy tunnels before their efforts alerted German miners. Norton-Griffiths equipped miners with the geo-phone, having seen demonstrations at the University of Paris. The device was essentially an adapted stethoscope but was incredibly effective when used. Miners could monitor German progress from a distance of 100ft in clay and 260ft in chalk tunnels.

The British had experienced some success in April 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres. Having detected a German tunnel close by they managed to detonate it with explosives before the Germans could. However, it did mean that British tunnellers were constantly reacting to the tactics of German mining without offering a more targeted strategy.

Norton-Griffiths felt a more aggressive approach was needed and he facilitated a number of measures to aid this. Firstly was the introduction of ammonal, an explosive far more powerful than TNT that would lead to some of the biggest detonations of the First World War. The issue of pay was also a major source of friction for the miners and almost led to strike action. Norton-Griffiths acted as the negotiator between military command and the miners, managing to introduce an escalating pay scale based on experience and skills. Finally, Norton-Griffiths was a keen proponent of deeper tunnels, which led to digging some 70-125ft beneath no man's land and ultimately under enemy lines.

The blasts get bigger


Two infamous operations were to define the operations of the miners and the frightening destruction that was now possible. The first happened on 1 July 1916, at the start of the Battle of the Somme. Two separate tunnels had been painstakingly dug in the Picardy region with 900 men working on each one. Packed with 40,000 lbs of explosives in one and 60,000 in the other, the blast was to rip through the ground with a crater 450ft wide at La Boiselle. However, German soldiers had detected the tunnelling just 24 hours before and retreated to safer ground. The blast was so powerful that German soldiers were still killed but as British infantry troops flowed over the top they were massacred by well positioned German machine guns. 11,000 soldiers were killed just along this section and by the end of the day's fighting there were over 57,000 British casualties.

Subsequently, in 1917, a co-ordinated attack created a blast so powerful, it could allegedly be heard in London. Tunnelling began in mid-1915 and it would take until June 1917 to reach their intended target, the Messines Ridge in West Flanders, Belgium. 22 tunnels were finally completed, with nearly one million lbs of explosives laid. The resulting blast vaporised all life in its path and the strategy first devised by Norton-Griffiths had proved to be as ruthless as it was destructive. It is hard to gauge the impact of the detonation but estimates have predicted that 10,000 German soldiers were killed and thousands more captured in a state of shell-shock.

Tunnelling as an offensive form of attack was to have its limitations as the nature of warfare changed. After 1917, troops were moving faster than the tunnellers could dig and specialised infantry units were now attacking key logistical posts and weaker sections along the flanks. Most tunnellers were now switched to constructing dugouts, dressing stations, hospitals and even subterranean coffee stalls.

Destroying the oil fields


By 1917 Norton-Griffiths' involvement in the tunnelling process had to come an end. His trail of destruction seemed to follow him and the Military Intelligence Department called him up for one final yet hugely significant mission. He was asked to destroy the oil fields of Romania before they fell into German hands.

Romania had entered the war in August 1916 but soon suffered a series of defeats by German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops. As German troops closed in on the oil fields, Norton-Griffiths arrived just in time to carry out a trail of devastation and damage with the aid of British engineers.

Going from town to town with his team of engineers he managed to wipe out the entire infrastructure of the oil fields. The Romanian government and oil producers were promised compensation but eventually received nothing as it was offset against their war debt to Britain.

In 1918 Norton-Griffiths stood down from his seat in Wednesbury and was elected to Wandsworth (1918–24). He also helped to form the 'Great War Association', a forerunner of the Royal British Legion.

His extraordinary life was to take one final twist. Visiting Alexandria, Egypt, in September 1930 he took a rowing boat out to sea. About an hour later his body was seen floating in the water. When the search party arrived he was found with a bullet through his temple but with no sign of the gun. The coroner's conclusion was suicide and his body was eventually brought back to rest in Mickleham, Surrey.

Image copyright: National Portrait Gallery