When Barry Trevers was a boy he thought his father had done nothing to be proud of in World War One, now he knows better.
William James Corcoran Trevers’ British and Australian campaign medals, along with the blue letter T, for tunneler, he wore on his sleeve, now have pride of place in Barry’s living room in Red Lodge. But he admits: “Other kids had exaggerated stories about their fathers in the war and I thought my father did nothing.
“What did a tunneler do? I wanted him to be in the Australian Light Horse. Then, gradually, I found that they didn’t have to stand in anyone’s shadow — they were the bravest of the brave.”
His Melbourne-born father was a member of the Australian First Mining Corps and fought his war deep underground where, on top of the normal hazards of mining, they risked being gassed or blown up by the Germans.
They often dug deep under German lines, usually to blow up a trench or fortification, but allied tunnelers took out a whole ridge at Messines. At the same time, German tunnelers were trying to do the same to our lines so both sides’ tunnelers listened for their rivals.
It meant mining had to be done by hand and if you made a sound, the enemy might drill through to your tunnel using a device called a camouflet to blow it up, then allied and German tunneling teams fought hand-to-hand in the pitch dark.
William was once buried by such an explosion and was also gassed. The Germans would flood an area with gas shells if they suspected tunneling because the heavier-than-air gas seeped into tunnels explosive shells could not reach.
William was 28 when he joined the army as a volunteer in 1915. He had sought his fortune gold mining in Ballarat, where he built a business moving mining machinery.
The First Mining Corps arrived at the front in 1916, by which time the Royal Engineers had 24 mining units and the Canadians had three.
Barry said what his father did came to him anecdotally through his mother, who met William while he was on leave.
“Tunneling was covered by the Official Secrets Act until about the ‘50s,” Barry said. “They had no parades through Melbourne or Sydney, they just went back to their old lives.”
Perhaps lack of recognition on top the horrors of their underground war may be why one Australian historian has referred to the ‘legacy of madness’ that awaited tunnelers.
William and his family returned to England in the 1930s and he died here, aged 76, after spending the last 20 years of his life in a mental institution. Barry remembers the hard times they went through with the Australian Army rejecting his mother’s claim for compensation as being made ‘too late’.
Tell us about your relatives in World War One: contact John Henderson on 01284 757821 or firstname.lastname@example.org