Scottish Born Soldiers in the New Zealand Tunnelling Company 1916-1919

Miners

New Zealand Miners, Paporoa Range, late 19th Century:  About a third of the sample of 62 Scots born miners worked in the Paporoa Range

On 4 April, the Graduate Workshop was joined by Grant Collie who is currently in the final stages of a Masters Degree by research at Massey University, New Zealand. An emigrant Scot – and a former student of the University of Edinburgh – Grant is undertaking research into 62 Scots born members (comprising 15%) of the 400 strong New Zealand Tunnelling Company which served as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force during the First World War.  Many were former coal miners from Central Scotland and Fife who emigrated to New Zealand towards the end of the nineteenth century, a period which coincided with the first major wave of Scottish migration to New Zealand.  Grant’s social historical  approach charted the background and motives of this significant sub group:  what were the reasons for their emigration from Scotland?  Why did they enlist?  Grant’s presentation provided an overview of work in progress.

Grant argued that poor social conditions provided the immediate backdrop to emigration.  In late 19th century Scotland, mining was a poorly paid and hazardous occupation.  Between 1885 and 1904, wages for the average miner, with a family to support, were only slightly above subsistence level, increasing from 4 shillings a day to 6 shillings a day over a twenty-year period.  Accidents were commonplace and discontent rife. Emigration provided an alternative life. Grant cited the case of Stephen Peggie, a miner from Lochore in Fife who was injured in a mining accident and by way of compensation was offered the sum of £ 300 to assist with payment of his passage to New Zealand. Emigration to New Zealand offered the hope of a new life and appealed to an underlying sense of adventure.  In their new surroudings, many emigrant Scots were able to draw on their previous technical experience to mine for black gold.

tunn_farewell

At the outbreak of war, a call was sent out throughout the British Empire for tunnelling companies; the New Zealanders were the first to respond. Their tunnelling company arrived in France in 1916 with no experience of mining in wartime conditions.  But as Grant observed, whilst the Scots born miners may not have been ideal soldiers, they were expert miners and were trained to obey orders.  In France, they began by working alongside the Highland 51st Division with whom they established good relations.   Work typically involved constructing labyrinthine tunnels , known as Catacombs, which the sappers named after New Zealand towns and cities. At Arras, in particular, the work of the New Zealand tunnellers made a significant contribution to the overall conduct of the battle.

Grant’s recent work has examined the impact of war on the 62.  Evidence suggests that a significant number were traumatised by their experience of warfare.  Suicide was not uncommon, nor were the effects of what  might now be regarded as Post Traumatic Place NamesStress Disorder.  Grant is currently researching the reasons for five of the 62 returning to Scotland, rather than their adopted country, at the end of the war. His visit to Europe coinciding, as it does, with centenary events to commemorate the Battle of Arras, has enabled him to carry out further primary research at the Scottish Mining Museum and the National Library of Scotland.

During the course of the presentation interesting issues arose as to the nature of national identity, and the availability of primary source material.  Whilst surprisingly little contemporary correspondence survives, the collective aural memory of family members provides a valuable contextual source.

This was a fascinating talk and a fitting end to our 2016/2017 programme. We wish Grant well with his continuing research.

 

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