Commentators sometimes talk about heroic efforts in sport. Whenever I hear references to heroes in sport I wonder what we understand about the characteristics of heroism.
A Classic FM interview of Will Davies enabled me to clarify my thoughts about heroism. Will Davies is the author of Beneath Hill 60, the story of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company in World War 1. The film of the book is due for release in April 2010.
A detailed account of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company can be found here. It is reported that “their work was arduous and exhausting and six months’ service in the tunnels of Hill 60 was regarded as the limit of strain any troops could stand”. The account of the tunnellers’ work notes that:
Among the 1st Tunnelling Company were a father and son from the coal mines of Wallsend NSW, Sapper J. B. Snedden and Sapper W. F. Snedden. J. B. was killed in action on 7 April 1917 … he is buried in Railway Dugouts Burial ground (Transport Farm) Zillibeke (Grave 7.K.21). Sapper J. T. Landrigan was entombed by a German explosion and survived only because of the frantic rescue digging by his comrades. On 25 May a German mine explosion separately entombed two Diggers, Sapper E. W. Earl and Sapper G. Simpson. Earl continued to listen to enemy noises and managed to write a report about them, He tapped out signals on the wall which twenty four hours later were heard. A close friend, Sergeant H. Fraser, led non-stop rescue digging and on 27 May Earl was and then Simpson, were brought out. Earl handed over his valuable reports. Suffering from the effects of asphyxia, his breathing chronically hampered, he died three months later. Other Diggers died of asphyxiation while trying to rescue mates.
So far from these events it is difficult (impossible) to think about the conditions these miners faced. (The Australian miners who worked in the First, Second and Third Tunnelling Companies were, on average, older than most infantrymen and ‘marked by a capacity for very fast work and a willingness to take great risks’.) So far away in time and so far away in circumstances I am reflecting on how we deal with adversity. Amazingly the Australian War Memorial has records of the work undertaken at Hill 60. This is an example from April 1917:
I wondered too if those who play in rain and on slippery surfaces might ponder conditions on Hill 60 … “The ground round about was strewn with pieces of iron, timber, concrete and wire”.
A communication trench 25 feet below the surface, excavated by the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, in the Ypres sector. Owing to the sodden nature of the earth the passage ways had to be heavily timbered. 3607 Sergeant A. Hood has been up to his knees in mud.
Miners of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company excavating dug-outs for Headquarters, 25 feet below the surface, in the Ypres sector. Left to right: 3261 Sapper (Spr) E. J. Anderson; 3716 Spr J. Mullins; 174 Spr G. Mann; 3559 Spr J. G. Brindley; 3607 Sergeant A. Hood.
Looking from an old crater on the north side of Hill 60, over the shell pitted ground towards Zillebeke Lake. The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company took over mining operations and mine fighting from the Canadians on Hill 60, the Canadians having previously taken over from the British. For months the underground workings had been dug and re-dug, lost and recaptured,