Strange meetings in tunnelling talk

‘Tunnelling for Victory in WW1’ was the title of a talk given by Robin Sanderson and Richard Crompton, for the Dunsden Owen Association on Tuesday, 9th October, 2018. Thanks to Joyce Reed for providing this review.

Like their forebears, Robin and Richard are ‘tunnellers’, albeit metaphorically. The third talk of the DOA series saw a hall packed to capacity; the audience were led down a ‘rabbit hole’ into the past where things got ‘curiouser and curiouser’. These two, working independently and at that time unacquainted, dug into their own family history and not only unearthed each other but also uncovered the fact that their relatives knew each other. Paths cross.

Robin’s grandfather, Alex Sanderson, worked in developing the goldfields of Western Australia, surveying, designing and supervising the construction of railways, pipelines and tunnels. The details were enthralling, from camel trekking across the Ashburton desert to his part in the creation of the North Mole of Fremantle Harbour. Driven by patriotism, he joined 3 ATC, (Third Australian Tunnelling Company), and travelled to Europe across dangerous waters on HMAT Ulysses. On reaching the front, he played a vital role in underground operations where the British were fighting. He was awarded his first MC for personal valour at the battle of Fromelles, in 1916. He worked in many locations such as Hill 70 and on the Hythe tunnel.

Having previously been second in command, he was promoted to Officer Commanding 3ATC when the previous incumbent was killed in action. His second MC was awarded, in 1918, for bravery in dismantling bombs and shells under incessant fire. Post war, his career was similarly illustrious and his personal life long and happy. His comment, in 1968, on the granite he used at Freemantle has wider resonances: ‘My granite will be here today; it will never wash away; it was very, very good solid granite.’.

Richard’s second cousin twice removed, Les Forsyth, often had been at Alex Sanderson’s desk – notes in hand – a sense of déjà vu? Born in NW Victoria, into an agricultural settlement, he was a blacksmith by trade, eventually working in Tasmania at the site of the world’s biggest copper mine. He enlisted into 3 ATC and served at Loos and at Hill 70, and helped to construct the Hulluch tunnels. Some of the tunnels were used for communications and others for transporting troops safely to the front lines. There were also hospitals and offices underground. Slides shown of the tunnels in 1918 and in their current state show the value of archaeological exploration. Who designed the famous ‘Stop Door’ used in the tunnels? Alex Sanderson. Who fashioned them? Probably Les Forsyth. Les was promoted to Company Quartermaster Sergeant. Maps of the tunnels, like ‘fingers’, were shown, a network of subterranean life. Les was awarded the Military Medal, in February 1919; the last awarded to his company. After working at Dorman Long, in Middlesborough, which supplied steel for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he returned to North Victoria to farm. Richard gave an account of Les’s varied life after the soldier resettlement scheme.

The bravery shown by Alex and Les, and their personal expertise and knowledge of new technology, was covered in the presentation. It made them ideally suited to the tasks they faced.

People, places, poetry… E.M. Forster’s mantra ‘Only Connect’ seems pertinent here. Owen’s eerie poem ‘Strange Meeting’ came to mind but in a different context – Alex and Les, Robin and Richard. 1ATC worked at the Sambre, near to where Owen was killed… this was the stuff of goosebumps.

The final talk in this original and popular series is on Tuesday November 27, when Ruth Tod of Henley Quakers will lead a session about Quakers and pacifism then and now.

Post a Comment