By Margaret Simpson
I took to Army life like a duck to water and was rewarded by rapid promotion from Captain in the Mining Corps in April 1916 to Major with the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company by November 1917.
I was baptised Ernest Sleeman Anderson, and known to all as Sleeman, elder son of the Bishop of the Riverine. I was a qualified metallurgist and mining engineer, abilities which I applied under extraordinary, challenging conditions on the Western Front.
Engineers were essential in the war effort – making roads and bridges, constructing dugouts and communication trenches, while often under fire; laying telephone cable two metres underground to withstand bombardment.
I was twenty-six when faced with my greatest challenge in preparation for the Battle of Messines – to supervise the loading of a charge near an enemy charge to create, once detonated, a subterranean cavity under the enemy front line as part of a camouflet. (Note: camouflĕ – pronounced kar-moo-flay – is a subterranean cavity formed by a bomb exploding underground.)
The mining operations were on an unprecedented scale and took a year to plan and construct. The Germans used the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge as a natural defence for their trenches.
Two months prior to the offensive my tunnellers and I worked long hours digging an intricate system. Our 2nd Field Survey Company had established precise locations under German lines for our mines. I relished command and was careful in what and how my sappers were required to dig. We dug with shovels and pickaxes, sometimes using explosives to dislodge stubborn rock.
We dug into a layer of ‘blue clay’ twenty-four to thirty metres underground. The men were like moles, working bare to the waist in dimly lit surrounds and listening for the slightest sound signifying a potential rock fall. Joe and Stan were my most trusted because of their steadiness and acute sensory awareness.
We could make not even a whisper when working on the galleries off the main tunnels for fear of alerting the Germans who were trying their darndest to detect our whereabouts. At rare moments we found ourselves uncomfortably close to the countermines of the enemy and my frantic signalling brought our sappers to a sudden halt.
Like all mines, ours were dark, wet, and cold, and we were pleased when shift ended. Exhausted and sweaty from concentrated vigilance and labour, we climbed a long wooden ladder to the surface and could inhale sweet fresh air. I received a special mention in despatches on 9th of April 1917 for devotion to duty. I gave my men additional rations and my personal respect for their stoic determination to complete our task together when beset by a rising water table and other pitfalls of tunnelling and laying mines.
The British laid twenty-six enormous mines with 454 tons of ammonia explosive. It took a year to accomplish. At zero hour on June 7th the mines were detonated. This was the start of our offensive and the explosion under Hill 60 was heard even in England. The detonation of these enormous mines was followed by a creeping infantry barrage with tank support to secure the ridge. The ANZAC Corps’ objective was the southern part of the ridge and Messines village, which was subject to the heaviest shellfire and fierce resistance.
On June 20th Lieutenant-Colonel Stevenson commended me to the Controller of Mines 2nd Army.
My commendation read “Lieutenant Anderson showed remarkable courage at all times. In the prior months he had supervised the loading of a charge near an enemy charge therefore creating a successful camouflet”.
In December 1917 I was awarded a Military Cross for courage and devotion to duty.
In November 1919 I returned to Australia to Clara, whom I had married shortly after enlisting. Together we started a family. I pursued a career with BHP but remained active in the army. I was called up for temporary service as a Colon