Archive for the ‘Tunnellers Memorial’ Category


I had a few much-needed days rest with the family at a cottage in Devon last week. We were blessed with beautiful weather and a good time was had by all. Most importantly I came back rested and restored after a busy time over the past few months.

I had wanted to visit Plymouth, my old university city, for some time, not only to see how it looked nowadays but to go to The Hoe and visit the Plymouth Naval War Memorial. I can well remember the memorial from my student days but gave it little thought back then. Twenty years older and perhaps a little wiser I wanted to pay my respects at the name of one man whose story I had looked into – Able Seaman Daniel Collins. Daniel was the younger brother of Thomas Collins, the man Sapper William Hackett refused to leave 40 feet below the fields of Givenchy – an act for which Hackett was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. He was the only tunneller ever to receive the award and he and Thomas Collins lie there still.

Plymouth Naval Memorial

Text on Plymouth Naval Memorial

Able Seaman Daniel Collins, RNVR was killed on 26 February 1918 on “SS Greavesash”, a merchant steamer which was torpedoed without warning by German submarine UB-74 and sunk off the Normandy coast. Daniel was one of eight crew who were killed that day. Whilst visiting Thomas and Daniel’s nephew, John Abraham back in March 2010 I had been struck by the loss of the two eldest Collins boys in the war and could only imagine the effect that this had on the family.

1918 RNVR panel on Plymouth Naval Memorial

The memorial is very imposing and is situated centrally on The Hoe overlooking Plymouth Sound. It commemorates 7,251 sailors of the First World War and 15,933 of the Second World War. The panels bearing the rank and names of sailors who were lost at sea are organized by date so I had to walk around the entire memorial from 1914 through to 1918 until I came to Panel 29 which contained the names of officers and men of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. The names, as per the various Memorials to the Missing on the Western Front are organised by rank and it was to the bottom right of the panel that I spotted the men who had the rank of Able Seaman; the third name down was “COLLINS D.”

Able Seaman Daniel Collins, RNVR – like your brother Thomas, gone but not forgotten.

Close up of Able Seaman Daniel Collins' name on Plymouth Naval Memorial

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I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch of the new Victoria Cross Gallery at the Royal Engineers Museum on 11 November. The exhibition opened to the public on 12 November but, along with about a hundred others, got a sneak preview. The exhibition celebrates the twenty five Victoria Crosses that the Museum holds as well as giving details for a further thirty RE VCs not in the museum collection. BBC Kent covered this story HERE.

Prior to the opening we were all lucky enough to see the ORIGINAL Victoria Crosses in a display box – I was informed that a cost estimate for the box was about £10 million.

Twenty-five original VCs - estimated cost near £10 million

It was terrific to see medals – from some of the earliest medal from the Crimean War, Boer War (Lieutenant Digby Jones who was the first man to be awarded the VC posthumously) through to the Second World War and that of Sergeant Thomas Durrant, awarded posthumously following his actions in the St Nazaire raid of 1942; his bravery was so great his captors insisted he receive a bravery award.

However, it was the Great War VCs that I had really come to see and I was not disappointed. Amongst those on display along with unseen archival material, personal items, and weaponry were the three Royal Engineers whose VC action was on the same day – 4 November 1918 when crossing the Sambre-Oise canal;  Sapper Adam Archibald VC, 218 Field Company, Major George de Cardonnel Elmsall Findlay VC, MC & Bar, 409 (Lowland) Field Company and Major Arnold Horace Santo Waters VC, 218 Field Company.

Major James McCudden, Gillingham’s own VC recipient, whose medals are on display alongside those of his two brothers (who sadly both also died in WW1) and his father’s (who died shortly after WW1).

My main interest was to see an addition to the museum’s collection of the story of Sapper William Hackett. I had tracked down descendants of Thomas Collins, the man Willam Hackett refused to leave under the fields of Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée in June 1916. This BBC Wales news item shows the picture of Thomas that hung over his mother’s fireplace until her death. It had been arranged between the family descendants and the RE Museum that this picture would go to the museum – after all, Collins is instrumental to the Hackett’s VC action. I was delighted to see Terry Carroll there, nephew of Thomas Collins, who I had met at the Tunnellers Memorial unveiling in June. He was delighted and understandably moved to see the picture of Uncle Tommy, a picture he knew so well from his childhood, restored, cleaned and hanging in such illustrious company in the RE Museum.

Original Victoria Cross of Sapper William Hackett, 254 Tunnelling Company

There is a Remembrance book in the Medals room, specifically for people to record their memories of members of their family who have served in the armed forces. The exhibition is now open to all visitors – it is highly recommended. Well done to the museum staff who have done such a fine job with this exhibition. The braveryof the men who earned these awards is, as ever, staggering.

For Valour - list of RE Victoria Cross recipients

Victoria Crosses held by the Royal Engineers Museum - click to enlarge

The museum can be found on Prince Arthur Road, Gillingham, Kent, ME4 4UG. Telephone 01634 822839 or website www.remuseum.org.uk

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As a slight aside from the work on the Tunnellers Memorial I am glad to report that I have managed to secure a permanent home for a treasured portrait picture of a young man who lost his life in the Great War.

When I tracked down John Abraham in March 2010 and we met to discuss Thomas Collins and the Tunnellers Memorial he showed me an amazing picture of Thomas which had always hung in the Collins family parlour. Details of this are given on this blog entry.

The full length picture was accompanied by his death scroll, both framed but in need of restoration. Following a conversation with John Abraham who suggested the picture needed lodging in a suitable military museum I am delighted to say that the Royal Engineers Museum at Chatham has agreed to take Thomas’ picture and death scroll to hang alongside William Hackett’s picture. Their stories are inexorably intertwined and I am not alone in feeling that there is a potent symbolism in their pictures hanging alongside each other while they both lie entombed 40 feet below the fields of Givenchy.

Picture of Private Thomas Collins, 14th Battalion Welsh Regiment

However, that is not the end of the story. Thomas was the eldest boy of the family. His younger brother was Daniel who, like Thomas, served his country in its hour of need. Sadly, Able Seaman Daniel Collins, RNVR was killed on 26 February 1918 on “SS Greavesash”, a merchant steamer which was torpedoed without warning by German submarine UB-74 and sunk off the Normandy coast. Daniel was one of eight crew who were killed that day.

On our visit to Swansea John Abraham also presented us with a framed portrait of Daniel along with his death scroll and asked that we secure a home for it too. This presented me with a problem as I knew the RE would be keen on Thomas’ picture because he was so integral to one of the best known VC actions in the war but I had no idea who to approach for safeguarding Daniel’s picture. I have tried the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth but sadly, they are unable to take this as it needs some restoration work and their space for storage is limited. I guess it will now have to go back to the family – it would have been nice to have had both brother’s pictures in museums.

On a final and not too wayward note, I can also report that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Debt of Honour entries for Thomas and Daniel have now been amended. I approached the CWGC in March 2010 as the “Additional Information” field gave different addresses for each man – a fact that threw me somewhat in my research process. I also asked that they acknowledged the loss of each brother in this field. They kindly agreed and the pages now say:

Daniel Collins

Son of Jack and Rachel Collins, of 58, Colbourne Terrace, Swansea. His brother Thomas also fell.

Thomas Collins

Son of Jack and Rachel Collins, of 58, Colbourne Terrace, Swansea. His brother Daniel also fell.

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A quick report on the terrific day for the unveiling of the Tunnellers Memorial at Givenchy-Lez-La Bassée. Well, where to start?! Firsty, many thanks to all who attended including friends and family plus representatives from the Historial at Peronne, Durand Group and Brian Owen from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers Museum plus many tunneller’s relatives. The weather certainly did its best to dampen the day but everyone battled on until the sun finally came out.

The Territorial band of the Royal Engineers played and marched for twenty minutes along the streets of Givenchy with locals and schoolchildren joining and following. They were then led by an honour guard from the Corps to the site selected for the speeches. Other attendees included Hackett Troop from the Royal School of Military Engineering as well as General David Bill (late RE) represented the British Army and the defence attaches of Canada and New Zealand. Veterans’ organisations from France paraded their standards along with those of the Ypres, Somme and Pas de Calais Branches of the Royal British Legion. The great nephew of Sapper William Hackett attended along with three nephews of Thomas Collins – John Abraham, John Carroll and Terry Carroll. I was especially proud to see them there after my work in tracking them down. By the time we all formed up we estimated the total attendance to be 300 – 400 people.

Sapper William Hackett VC, 254 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers

Speeches were made by Monsieur Jacques Herbaut, Maire de Givenchy (with translation into English provided by Mme. Tracy Bernard), General David Bill, Peter Barton and finally a reading of John French’s diary entries for the period by me. It was a very emotional moment reading these words with relatives of William Hackett and Thomas Collins standing just a few yards away.

Private Thomas Collins, 14th Battalion, Welsh Regiment

We then all moved down to the site of the Shaftsbury Shaft where Reverend Pat Aldred conducted a blessing for Sapper William Hackett VC and Private Thomas Collins which was followed by the Last Post, two minute’s silence and the Reveille. The entire party then moved to the Memorial for the unveiling. Firstly the Exhortation was delivered by WO1 Philip Moffitt RE and then the Tunnellers Memorial was unveiled by Monsieur Jacques Herbaut, Maire de Givenchy, and Monsieur René Cuvelier, Premier Adjoint au Maire. Wreaths and tributes were laid by officials. This was followed by the playing of the Marseillaise followed by the National Anthems of Great Britain, New Zealand, Canada and Australia (all countries who had specialist Tunnelling Companies). Finally there were wreaths and tributes laid by guests.
There then followed a Vin ‘d’honneur in Givenchy’s Salle de Fete which included canapés and a couple of barrels of specially brewed “William Hackett Ale” (unfortunately run out by the time I made it to the hall).

Tunnellers Memorial

A full write up and pictures plus video interviews with those involved will be added to the Tunnellers Memorial website in due course. In the interim, please take a look at the BBC Wales news piece by Carwyn Jones who had travelled out with the three Welsh nephews of Thomas Collins. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/10371047.stm

Terry Carroll, John Carroll & John Abraham at the Tunnellers Memorial

I think it is a very fitting memorial to that special breed of men who served and fought underground with such aplomb. The information panel designed so skilfully by OMB Direct is also a great addition to the memorial site.

The Information Panel with standard bearers in attendance

I can only echo countless other comments received on that day and thank Peter Barton and Maggie Lindsay Roxburgh for their vision, commitment and perseverance in erecting this long neglected memorial to the tunnellers.

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Just had to write a few lines to praise to the heavens the Bristol-based design team, OMB Direct. I was put in touch with them by my wife who had done some work with them before and approached them with regard to doing the design work for a (2x1m) information panel that we are getting done for the Tunnellers Memorial www.tunnellersmemorial.com. I thought they may offer us a good rate but was bowled over when, on hearing about the project, they offered their services completely for free!

So far they have sent us revised editions as we provide more pictures and text – throughout they have been brilliantly helpful and I think the finished article is superb. It will explain the story of William Hackett and Thomas Collins and a little about the Tunnelling Companies along with great pictures and a fantastic line drawing of the incident in which the two men lost their lives.

So, a big thanks to Chris and Sharon for their design skill and help plus their wonderful generosity and sheer good nature.  I would recommend them to anyone. www.ombdirect.co.uk

John Abraham is one of the nephews of Thomas Collins. He read of our appeal to trace any family descendants in the South Wales Evening Post of 1 March and called me a few days later. The phone call was a very special moment as I had worked so hard to trace him and, as he mentioned his relationship to the Collins family members and I recognised every name from the 1911 census records, I realised that my search had been rewarded. For a researcher, this was a Eureka moment which had quite an effect on me.

Following a number of phone calls with John and BBC Wales (who covered the story for the regional news) Peter Barton and I travelled to Swansea on Friday 12 March to meet up. We met the BBC at the Swansea Cenotaph to view Thomas Collins’ name on the memorial.

It felt strange seeing his name (and that of his brother Daniel who had died in 1918 whilst serving with the RNVR) and knowing that we would soon meet a descendant of his. The BBC did their filming there and we then headed to Thomas’ old address that he enlisted from (50 Shelley Crescent – now renamed as High View) where I was interviewed for BBC Radio Wales. Next up was Colbourne Terrace where the Collins family moved to post-war (Thomas’ youngest brother William lived at No.58 until his death in the 1990s).

Our last and most moving stop was our visit to John’s house (all of a mile or so from Colbourne Terrace) where we were welcomed in. John had mentioned that Thomas’ mother had had a large picture of Thomas but I never imagined what I would find. It really is the most incredible 3ft x 2ft framed picture of Private Thomas Collins in khaki with cards that he sent home from France stuck around the outside of the frame. This painted picture, although in need of a good clean up, had incredibly vivid colours. It had sat in Thomas’ mother’s parlour for the rest of her lifetime (along with one of Daniel Collins). These remarkable pictures were clearly treasured possessions and a real tribute to her two eldest boys lost in the war. We had a good long chat with John, some on camera for the Beeb, but mostly after they had left. John indicated that he would be delighted to attend the memorial unveiling on 19 June along with other members of his family. I am sure that day will be an incredible experience and can only imagine what it will be like to see relatives of Sapper William Hackett VC and Private Thomas Collins standing together at the spot where their family members still lie 40 feet beneath the Givenchy clay. As ever, please visit the News & Fund Raising section of    http://www.tunnellersmemorial.com/ for further details and to see the picture of Thomas Collins.  Please click for a video of the BBC Wales News piece on our meeting John Abraham

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I have been busy this week with publicising the Tunnellers Memorial. This is to be unveiled on Saturday 19 June and we would like as big an attendance there as possible. We certainly don’t want charges of ‘I would have come but wasn’t aware of it’ levelled at us – the more people who know, the better as far as we are concerned.

Knowing the huge number of police officers interested in the Great War, I contacted NARPO who were very helpful and added a piece to their News Section. The Guild of Battlefield Guides did likewise. There followed the large task of contacting as many regimental museums as possible with the aim that they spread the word to their contacts. So far I have had some really positive responses back and people seem genuinely delighted with the proposed memorial. Next up is to contact the various contacts in the South Wales press and TV with the aim of publicising our search for descendants of Private Thomas Collins of Swansea. Collins was the wounded man who Hackett refused to leave and it would be fantastic to trace any family members to attend the unveiling ceremony.  More news on this as and when…