David Bomberg (1890-1957) 

The Canadian Sappers in an Underground War

The Great War is known for its technological innovations, from the release of mustard gas to the invention of the flamethrower to the unexpected presence of the tank, but this war is also known for one of the oldest ways of attacking the enemy, from beneath. The land between the trenches on both sides, No Man’s Land, was empty and barren of life, bordered by barbed wire, draped here and there with bodies. Only occasionally, when some general far away in his headquarters would call for a random assault on the other side, was the deadly calm of the bleak stretch of terrain disturbed. But underneath was a network of tunnels, leading from one side to the other, like tentacles reaching out with the aim of destruction, blowing up the trenches on the other side. One of the sources on tunneling, an intense enterprise that went on for four years, referred to the Great War as a “siege war.” To think of the war as a prolonged siege is an interesting approach to a conflict that became mired in one place as early as September of 1914. The aim of tunneling, however ancient an art, had the same goal as gas or aerial warfare–the break the stalemate, to end the siege.

In effect the word for the engineers and miners who designed and dug the tunnels of the War comes from medieval siege warfare. The origin of the word is the French word “sape,” meaning to undermine,” which is not far from the English term “sap,” meaning to drain, as in one’s strength. But the original word rested on the French word for hoe, “sap.” A millennia ago a “sap” was a trench dug underground and going underneath the foundations of the castle. Once under the stone base, the miners could remove the stones and replace a section of the wall with wooden supports. In an age without explosives, fire was the best weapon and once the wood was burned, the part of the castle wall that was undermined would simply collapse. Once the walls were breached, the siege was over and the army of the outside would pour into the interior of the castle. The men who dug these primitive tunnels were called by the French “Sapeurs,” which became “sappers” in English. By the early nineteenth century, fully one hundred years before the Great War, mining engineers, even at the rank of private were referred to as “sapper” to designate his (and now her) special role in the military. A sapper is more than a mere digger; a sapper is an engineer who knows how to read and make a map, knows how to construct and preserve a tunnel, and who, above all, is conversant with the art of concealment and silence.

Taking place largely in the lamp lit dark, the work of being a sapper is fraught with suspense and danger. But despite the Medieval ancestry, the tunneling activities  of the Royal Engineers and been neglected only to be re-awakened in 1914 when the Germans tunnel underneath the British lines and blew up the members of the Indian Sirhind Brigade, killing 800 men. Within a year, the British had formed its own tunneling companies. The Tunneling Companies worked with infantry units whose job it was to support above ground their labors below ground. And this work took place in secret. As one war raged above, another was conducted below, as silently and as stealthily as possible. These tunnels were deep underground, close to a hundred feet, allowing for complete concealment from above ground, but below ground, vibrations and digging noises  could be detected. like a seismograph reacts to earthquakes.

Digging underground is not as private as one might suppose, for the enemy is also digging tunnels, some of which are inevitably going to be running parallel to your tunnel. Therefore a crucial part of the game of listening, ear to the wall, waiting for sounds of the enemy. Both sides, both tunnels are moving in opposite sites and, at some point, explosives will be moved forward, anticipating their final positioning. By the end of the war, listening became a specialized art form, complete with sensors. Specialists, trained over time to recognize the significance of certain sounds, became crucial to the entire enterprise. Timing becomes crucial. When the goal becomes destroying an enemy tunnel then the game changes and the question becomes when to set off the explosives? The side that goes first may be the side the catches the enemy off guard, trapped  in a tunnel, and blows up the tunnel and the miners who were working there. This act of defensive mining, blowing up a tunnel, creating an artificial cavern underground, as opposed to a crater above ground, is essentially an attack, designed to stop an enemy is called a camouflet.

Crumps and Camouflets: Australian Companies Tunnelling on the Western Front by Damien Finlayson discussed one of the most famous camouflets, dug to protect the Royal Engineers tunneling operation towards famous Hill 60 on the Ypres Salient. This hill, not a natural rise, but an artificial mound or soil dump made when a railroad had been dug nearby in the nineteenth century. That said, the hill made a good vantage point for who ever could hold it and its commanding view of the Ypres battlefield; and from the beginning of the Great War, it was the Germans who held the Hill. The tunnel project had been begun by the British, worked on by the Canadians and completed by the ANZAC forces. The Royal Australian Engineers were ultimately tasked with blowing up this vital vantage point, that part of the mound, called the “caterpillar, and when the 1st Australian Tunneling Company heard German miners within hearing distance of their own tunnel, it was necessary to protect the enterprise. The Australians built a gallery to blow a camouflet to protect the main operation, which  was headed towards Hill 60. The Germans, who knew that something was going on underground, apparently had no idea of the significance of the Australian tunnel, thought that an underground magazine had blown up, and the secrecy was preserved.

The entire operation ended in a partial success when, after two years of work, two thousand feet of tunnels and one million pounds of explosives, all of the mines were set off at three in the morning on the seventh of June in 1917. Of the twenty-two tunnels, nineteen mines were exploded, blowing off the crest of the Messines-Wytschaete ridge. The sound echoed in London and Dublin. The Battle of Messines Ridge had begun, instantly killing ten thousand Germans and opening a gap in the line for the British to exploit. As one German observer described the explosions as “nineteen gigantic roses with carmine petals, or enormous mushrooms, rose up slowly and majestically out of the ground and then split into pieces with a mighty roar, sending up multi-colored columns of flame mixed with a mass of earth and splinters high in the sky.” The real victory was the psychological assault on the Germans who were shocked into retreat. The terrifying explosions left huge craters which swallowed human beings and allowed the British to begin a forward push, which preceded the Third Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele a month later. In an unfortunate postscript to the first successful advance of the War was the loss of the precise location of two unexploded mines, one of which blew up in 1955, killing a cow. The other mine lies underground it it unknown grave, lost to this day. 

One of those nineteen mines exploded at Messines Ridge was detonated from a tunnel at St Eloi, which was 1,650 feet long and 125 feet deep–one of the longest and deepest to the many tunnels running towards Hill 60. This spectacular success was the work of the Royal Canadian Engineers who exploded the largest mine of the war, weighing it at 95,600 pounds. Over time, the crucial and quiet work of the miners have been overshadowed by material on arial combat and accounts of trench warfare. Not until the Australian film, Beneath Hill 60 (2010) and the British film Songbird (2007) was the work of the Engineers highlighted for contemporary audiences. The monuments to Canadian soldiers, who received their baptism of fire at Ypres in 1916 are in honor of the infantry, except for the Monument to the St. Elio Tunnelers, which commemorates the Battle of the St. Eloi Craters in 1916. After serving on the front lines, in the trenches, in 1917, David Bomberg, famous Vorticist artist was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorial Fund to commemorate the work of the Canadian Tunnelers.  It is one of the ironies of art that the artist, David Bomberg, who celebrated the work of those miners tunneling beneath No Man’s Land, inching towards the German lines, had a great fear of enclosed spaces.

In the Hold c.1913-4 David Bomberg 1890-1957 Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1967 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00913

     David Bomberg. In the Hold (1913-4) 

It is possible that the Canadian authorities were unaware of the fact that Bomberg had been expelled from the Slade School of Art–one of rebellious students of Henry Tonks–for painting an early Vorticist work and re-thinking of Futurism, In the Hold (1913). Easily one of the most advanced avant-garde works of the period, Cubist or Futurist, this work combines all the edgier tendencies but Bomberg, a humanist in his own way, insisted on including the abstracted and geometric figures as modern people caught in the vortex of modernization. Perhaps because of his distrust of authority, coming from a dictatorial and domineering father,  Bomberg, as his contemporaries could have told the Canadians, listened to no one and joined nothing, and went his own way. He was included in the “Cubist Room” in the Camden Town Group and Others exhibition at Brighton in January of 1914, probably because no one knew where else to put his paintings.

Ju-Jitsu c.1913 David Bomberg 1890-1957 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1963 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00585

 David Bomberg. Ju-Jitsu (1913) 

Influenced by Clive Bell’s idea of “significant form,” Bomberg abstracted his forms into a stringent sharp cornered purity that would have surprised Bell, who associated with the Bloomsbury artists who were, for the most part, following post-Impressionism. Bomberg belonged, in a loose sense, to the London Group, of which he was the co-founder, a company that included Christopher Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth. Keeping his distance from Vorticism, even though he wold be associated with the movement, Bomberg had an exhibition at the Chenil Gallery days before the Great War broke out of his own paintings independently shown, apart from any group.

The Mud Bath 1914 David Bomberg 1890-1957 Purchased 1964 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00656

        David Bomberg. The Mud Bath (1914) 

But fate would draw Bomberg the non-Vorticist towards the Canadian Vorticist Wyndham Lewis. When the Great War broke out, Bomberg became a member of the Royal Engineers, becoming a sapper in the trenches, and was transferred to the King’s Royal Rifles, until he was sent home, shell-shocked. Bomberg recorded his time in the trenches with brittle sketches, his style suddenly making perfect sense, of the guns, the fighting, and the dying. But for the artist, the best way to express the chaos was free verse, an outpouring of outrage in a Futurist freedom of associations. After putting in his year of service, he, along with Lewis, became part of the Canadian War Memorial Fund and was transferred to the Canadian Regiment at St. Eloi. The Fund asked specifically if Bomberg could restrain himself from painting in a modern style and wanted a tribute to “Paschendaele.”

Study for 'Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hill 60, St Eloi' c.1918-9 David Bomberg 1890-1957 Purchased 1959 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00319

Study for ‘Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hill 60, St Eloi

The initial study for the work is large and imposing and unsettling, strangely chaotic and Biblical at the same time. It is as though the artist was fumbling to appease two impulses. The martyrdom of soldiers who were also trained killers seemed to indicate a Renaissance or perhaps theatrical Baroque approach, as Andrew Graham-Dixon, suggested, but a comparison of the multiple versions of this work suggest not so much an artist under pressure to produce a commissioned work that would appeal to his clients but the struggles of an artist who has lost his way.


David Bomberg. Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunelling Company, first version, (1918-1919)

Bomberg, who had listened little to his art teachers, seems to have ignored the Canadians and produced with they called a “Futurist abortion.” In fact, Bomberg’s style, which was to reduce the human form to angular shapes, was well suited to depicting tunnelers who shored up their shafts with wooden supports, as sharp edged as his figures. The second version, seen below, Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hill 60, St Eloi, moves towards an approach more palatable to the traditionalists.


Because the Fund had something quite different in mind–something more traditional and more recognizable–Bomberg, urged by his wife, had to reconsider his position as an artist who needed employment. Humiliated, Bomberg complied, defiantly–perhaps–putting himself in the final version, carrying a beam, reminded the Fund that he knew more about being a sapper than they did. The resulting compromise remained in Canada, at the National Gallery of Ottawa, and was not seen by English audiences, perhaps to the relief of the artist. The paintings, all of the attempts to capture life underground, fail in their own way to do justice to the dark and the danger faced by these unique soldiers who fought a strange war. Hiding like moles, living entirely underground, straining to hear the slightest movement from an unseen enemy, the Sappers lived in continual suspense. It was this grave like life that set these military engineers apart from the infantry above the ground, which enduring long periods of boredom, punctuated moments of extreme terror.

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David Bomberg. Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunelling Company, second, final version (1919)

Like most artists and poets who suffered through the war David Bomberg was muted by his inability to express, through painting, want he had endured. An overview of his work, a far too brief span of time, shows the vibrant defiance of his not-Futurist, not-Vortist works deflating into an empty style in search of a proper subject. Sadly, Bomberg was unnerved by his wartime experiences and disheartened by the death of his brother Emmanuel in 1917 and disappointed by the continuing resistance to his very innovative art. Too many of his friends had died, including T. E. Hulme, the promising art critic. After the war, it is said that he “returned to order,” rather like the French artists. But the French “return” was limited to taming Cubism, while Bomberg’s return was more of a refutation of modernism and modernity. Bomberg gave up everything he had accomplished during his youth and set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he did Claude-like landscape studies. Like many of the “lost generation,” David Bomberg drifted and slid off the map of British art, only to be resurrected on the centenary of the Great War, when it was realized that some of the most significant expression of this terrible four years came from the brushes of British painters.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   

Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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