William Hackett VC
The battlefields of France saw many an heroic act as the British and German armies bombarded each other from their trenches during the insane slaughter of World War One. Above the ground, wave after wave of senseless attacks saw men die by the thousand as they attempted to gain a few yards of muddy ground.
Deep beneath the mayhem and slaughter on the surface, a second, secret war was being fought; a war that the vast majority of people know nothing about, even today. Deep beneath the killing fields of France, miners from Britain, New Zealand and Australia, dug their silent way towards the enemy lines in an attempt to blow up their trenches from below.
Up to 20,000 men, on both sides were engaged in this activity. The men toiled away in conditions that would have made the cramped galleries of the coal mines at the time, seem almost luxurious. One such man was William Hackett.
William was born in the 11th June 1873 in the aptly named, Patriot Street in Sneinton, an inner-city area of Nottingham. William never learned to read and write and scraped a living as a miner, working the dangerous seams of the Nottinghamshire-South Yorkshire coalfields.
In his early 20’s William moved to Mexborough in South Yorkshire where he met his bride to be, Alice. They were married in Coningsborough in 1900 and had two children, a boy called Arthur and a girl, Mary.
William was a handsome chap, with a thick, luxuriant moustache and a piercing gaze. None too tall and stocky in build, he had the ideal miner’s physique and could manoeuvre his supple body around the low, narrow galleries that typified coal mines of the day. In 1915 William decided that he wanted to help the war effort and applied to join the Royal Engineers, but by then he was 42 and deemed too old to be of any use.
He tried to enlist a second time but was once more refused on the grounds of his age. Undaunted William reapplied, but was again turned away.
He had by now become something of a fixture at the doors of the recruiting office, sometimes turning up straight after a shift in the mines. Doggedly refusing to accept defeat he applied again, this time basing his appeal on his 23 years of mining experience during which he had seen many men maimed and killed. To his absolute delight he was successful and in 1915 he joined the 254 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers. Before leaving for France, William gave his son, Arthur, a few words of advice. ‘Don’t go down the pit, son. It is far too dangerous.’
During June of 1916 William and four other miners were working forty feet below ground driving a tunnel towards the enemy lines. At the same time a crew of Germans finished their tunnel and packed the gallery with explosives. They detonated it on the 23rd June underneath a battalion of Welsh fusiliers, forming a crater 120 yards long, 70 yards wide and 30 feet deep.
The shock of the explosion caused the roof of the tunnel that Hackett and his team were working in to collapse and the men were trapped in the narrow passageway forty feet below ground. A rescue team was sent out and they dug their way through the fallen earth and broken timbers to reach their trapped comrades. It must have been a terrifying experience for Hackett and his crew as they waited in what was possibly their tomb, for help to arrive. Every now and then more earth and rubble would be dislodged as shells from the German guns exploded above them.
William kept his men calm and lifted morale by reciting tales of daring rescue in the tunnels of France and the coal mines back home. Being the experienced miner, he set to work himself and began to dig his way back through the debris of the collapsed gallery.
Twenty hours later he reached the rescue team and a small hole appeared just large enough for a man to crawl through. With the aid of the rescue party three of his men were dragged to safety as the roof once again began to collapse.
Unfortunately, one of his team, Private Thomas Collins, a young man of twenty-two, had been trapped and was terminally wounded and there was no way he could be dug out alive. Ignoring the calls from the rescue party to save himself, Hackett returned to the tunnel and made his way back to Collins.
Hackett would certainly have known his fate as the shifting rock and sliding earth gradually took up the space in the tunnel and the air became staler and thinner. He had been a miner for years and had seen many a roof collapse. He had been on rescue parties himself and had seen the faces of men who had died by suffocation, he knew exactly what to expect.
The rescue party came back three times but William refused to leave his comrade to die alone as the shifting earth took back its territory. Finally, after three, long days, the tunnel gave way, entombing the men forever beneath the fields of Givenchy. For this selfless act of courage, William Hackett was awarded a posthumous VC and became the only Sapper, ever to receive the ultimate badge of honour. His wife, Alice, picked up the award from the king at Buckingham Palace on the 29th November 1916.
A month after his death, his son, Arthur lost a leg in a roof collapse in a coal mine. It is not recorded how the family survived with both breadwinners gone. To say life would have been difficult must have been a massive understatement.
In 2008 an appeal was launched to raise funds for a memorial to the brave men of the Royal Engineers tunnelling division.