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The World is a Stage

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Laurel Beechey - The World is a Stage

For Remembrance Week I thought I would share the information given to me by Norm Moyer at the Tillsonburg District Hospital, April 8, 1993.

Private Norm Moyer was born Oct. 13, 1895, lived in Mt. Elgin on a farm. He enlisted at 19 years of age in Ingersoll, April 1916. He was sent to 1st Canadian Tunneling Company trained and was sent to France. Norm was trained as a 'sapper' or tunneler.

The object of mining in WWI was to place large amounts of explosives under the enemy front line, blowing it up at a predetermined moment and utilizing the confusion to occupy part of the enemy’s front line at a cost in life far lower than would have been involved in a frontal assault.

The technique developed in the war was to dig an open trench, known as a sap, usually in a zig-zag pattern forward of the front line to a point as near the enemy’s lines as possible. This distance was usually the range to which a grenade could be thrown. From this point a tunnel or mine would be dug toward the enemy’s line. When a position under the line had been reached an explosive charge would be placed at the end of the tunnel and tamped in such a way that most of the blast would be directed upwards into the oppositions front line trench. From the charge, electric cables were laid to a safe position and at the appointed hour the mine would be fired.

The foregoing description supposes the enemy to have remained in ignorance of the mining operations. This was, however, unlikely as he would have been listening for such activity with the use of unaided ear or a geophone, an instrument similar to the doctor’s stethoscope. If he detected mining in operation, he would dig a tunnel of his own – a counter mine – and try to dig into his opponent’s tunnel undetected, and then destroy it.

If this countermine was, in turn, detected the opponent would await its arrival and then attempt to beat the enemy in a fight in-tunnel or use a device known as a camouflet. This involved pushing a long tube towards the enemy’s countermine, and when it had reached a position fairly close to it, detonated an explosive charge at its tip. This was usually sufficient to cause the collapse of the countermine.

Most of the dirt was actually white chalk which had to be removed and hidden from the German’s air reconnaissance. Most of these tunnels were small, only four feet high, so it was back-breaking work and extremely stressful because you had to be quiet to save your life.

Norm was involved in the 1917 launch of The Flanders Offensive. Its auspicious beginning was a success, but involved only a limited advance to seize Messines Ridge which would straighten out the salient south of Ypres. The ridge was taken due to work of the sappers.

It was here on June 7, 1917, that Norm helped in loading 80 tons of ammonal in the tunnels under the German lines. Ammonal was an explosive more volatile than dynamite. At 3:10 a.m. 19 mines spread over eight miles were blown all at the ‘same second’, rolling out huge mounds of earth and chalk the size of a city block. Norm was very proud of his contributions that day.

It sounds glorious doesn’t it, yet the chalk dust when you were digging filled your eyes, nose and throat. They would dig their four-foot tunnels, filling sandbags with the dirt and dragging them out to be used in trenches, bunkers, etc. They would then lug timber in to shore up the mines. They then lugged 40 lb pails of explosives in, all the while trying to be quiet so the Fritzies would not hear them. There was water everywhere which they constantly had to pump out.

Some of the tunnels were almost 200 feet down, countermine under countermine. Norm admitted to being very scared while in the mines as it was a very high risk job. He often would have to sit quietly in a tunnel listening for Fritzie – you could not tell where the Germans were, and all of a sudden they would be in your tunnel trying to blow you up.

Norm went to Vimy where he was stationed until end of war. He helped to plant mines at Vimy, although he was not there for the initial battle.

Norm recalled artillery barrages where the wheels of the guns touched each other for what seemed like miles; and how overwhelming the noise was. He remembered also a lot of mules tied to a rail when a shell came and killed them all.

Norm returned to Canada March 25, 1919. When I asked him: “Did the folks at home ever understand what it was like,” he replied, “People at home didn’t know what was happening over there, they never understood unless they were there.”

Norman Moyer privileged me with his story when he was 98 years old. Twelve days later he died.

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