Thursday, 24 December 2009

The War Underground

"To rid ourselves of our shadows, we must step into either total light, or total darkness" Jeremy Preston Johnston

AS THE cage doors closed on Hanmer's Arnold Ballard and the elevator hurtled ever deeper into the coal black mines, the 19-year-old resigned himself to leaving behind his family and friends, spending his Second World War in the alien underground world of the miners, as one of Britain's 'Bevin Boys.'

Even back in 1943, few were aware of the Bevin Boys, least of all 19-year-old Arnold Ballard who returned home from his honeymoon to find a fateful letter waiting for him.The man who had given his name to the programme was Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour and National Service for the wartime government which at the outbreak of war had begun desperately conscripting men into the armed forces, not foreseeing the difficulties a shortage of experienced coal miners would create.

By the time they realised what they had done, the coal mines had lost more than 35,000 of workers, and when attempts to persuade volunteers to replace them in time for the winter failed, Ernest Bevin announced plans to take a percentage of the conscripts to work in the mines.

"We need 720,000 men continuously employed in this industry," said Bevin, "This is where you boys come in. Our fighting men will not be able to achieve their purpose unless we get an adequate supply of coal."

News of the selection came as a real shock for the young men chosen, not least Arnold Ballard who was all set for life in the armed forces: "I was stunned," he said, "I was just back from my honeymoon and there was the letter waiting for me."I had hoped to join the Navy and wanted to be a medic, having done Red Cross certificates and training, so this came a real shock.

"Having prepared himself mentally to go to war and fight alongside his friends, the news that he would spend the war down the mines and hundreds of miles from his friends was hard to take in: "The selection was random. Each week they would pick a number and the men whose national service number ended with that number would be sent down the mines. I forget what the number was that week, but I didn't know anyone else who was selected.

"For those sent to the mines there was little chance to appeal the decision. Even those suffering claustrophobia, for whom the mines would have been a worse kind of hell than the battlefield, had little choice in the matter. One of the Bevin Boys who suffered from just this condition wrote that after psychiatric assessment he was informed he could either report for the mines or accept three months in prison, after which he would be given the same choice, again and again and again.

Only certain professions vital to the war effort were made exempt and though Arnold might have reasonably expected his medical training would secure his place in the armed forces, such was the desperate situation back home that even these skills were given up in favour of coal and energy. Like countless others he appealed, but like countless others he received his orders to report for training.

Arnold and his fellow intake received four weeks of hard physical training to ensure they were physically able to carry out the gruelling work, followed by two weeks at a disused mine in Sheffield. In no time they were reporting for work at Glapwell colliery in Derbyshire."The first time the doors slammed shut on the cage my heart was in my mouth," said Arnold, "I had no idea what to expect down below and it took off downwards at an incredible speed."

That first experience of hurtling down into the mines, surrounded by unfamiliar faces was an ordeal shared by all the Bevin Boys, packed in nervously among the joking regular miners for who this was just a normal Monday morning, but while the miners would have been used to what greeted them, for newcomers like Arnold, the sight was beyond anything he could have imagined:

"It was like a complete village underground," remembered Arnold, "there were offices, stables and horses, and tunnels - or 'gates' - each heading off to different coal faces."I was put to work on the iron rings which support the gates and tunnels. The huge weight of rock would gradually cause them to subside and it was our job to lift them back up to the proper height."

Arnold's first 18 weeks in a row were spent working the night shift, something he says took a long time to recover from. There was no shortage of danger either, with the inexperienced new miners facing terrifying underground accidents for the first time. Arnold may have been grateful his role did not involve working the dusty coal face, but as one of the men responsible for keeping the tunnels open, he could expect to be called to dig out rock from the cave-ins.

"After some months, the family I stayed with had allowed my wife to come and stay with me. I remember the one day I had left as usual at 10 o'clock and by 12 the next day I had still not come home which left her incredibly worried.

"There had been a tremendous roof fall not long after I had arrived. It was incredible, if you looked up all you could see was the vast black hole above and we had to work around the clock to try and clear it. You had to work quickly, but you were never sure if the rest of it was going to come crashing down."

Despite the risk involved, Arnold said he preferred his work to the unfortunate souls sent to work the coalface, unprepared for the explosions and thick choking dust of the mine's outer reaches.Conscripts received helmets and steel-capped safety boots but most had to wear whatever clothes they already owned. In some places, being of military age but without a uniform led them to be questioned by police, while there was also a popular misconception that the Bevin Boys were conscientious objectors, as this was where a number were sent, making them unpopular with the families of those fighting.

Arnold says luckily he did not encounter much of this kind of attitude, partly because the area was so used to miners that its inhabitants were among the few who realised what the conscripts faced underground.As time went on and Arnold and his intake gradually grew to know the mines and become proficient and familiar with their workings, he says it was strange to see the new raw recruits arrive at the bottom of the mine shaft with that same expression of fear and awe on their faces, realising that he and the others had become the 'old hands' helping them learn the ropes.

Arnold's time as a Bevin Boy was brought to an abrupt end 18 months later, by a medical discharge: "I remember being sent to see the doctor, who thumped my back at which point I nearly fainted. He just said, 'well, you're not faking it' and that was it. There was no compensation, no-one you could see about it, you were just out."

The Bevin Boy programme was wound up in 1948. The men received no medals and unlike the armed services did not have the right to return to the jobs they had left at the start of the war.To add insult to injury, the men were not even fully recognised as contributors to the war effort until 1995, 50 years after VE Day. After a further ten years, Prime minister Tony Blair the conscripts would each receive a Veteran's Badge to honour their efforts, but Arnold says he considers the tiny cheap-looking pin he received, depicting an incorrect drawing of a winding gear, an embarrassment and an insult.

As the soldiers returned home to medals and a heroes welcome, thousands of Bevin Boys finally emerged from the darkness of the mines, with no medals or uniforms to prove they had taken any part in the war effort.

Only now have we really come to understand just how important their role was and that without the coal they mined and the energy they produced, Britain would have been lost long before the war could be won.

1 comment:

Charley said...

Dear David,
Thank you for writing such a lovely article about my great uncle, it was greatly appreciated. He was such a kind and lovely man, and it's such a shame you never met his wife; you could have written such a great article on her exploits in the land army. I thought you might like to know that Uncle Arnold passed away at the end of July, but I know he appreciated the piece you wrote.
Thank you again,
Charley (his great niece) and Jenny (his niece)