James Williamson was an engineer, and had just finished a roading contract in Auckland when war was declared in 1914.
He became one of over 400 engineers, labourers, miners and quarrymen who responded to the call to enlist in the newly established New Zealand Tunnelling Company.
The company had been created to undertake specialist work on the Western Front, tunnelling under German positions and destroying them by exploding mines. They would also counter tunnel against enemy tunnellers, who were attempting the same tactics.
Williamson had initially made three attempts to enlist in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, but had been rejected because of his age and medical condition. The New Zealand Tunnelling Company, however, was accepting older men. He just needed to get around the medical requirements.
I was determined to get away if possible. At that time I was living next door to a Mrs McNab, mother of Dr. Peter McNab. He had joined up and was on leave prior to going away…. I asked whether he knew any doctor who would complete my papers without a medical examination. He said that he had an idea he could fix me up. I was to give him five pounds which I did. Next day he told me to go and see a certain doctor.
On going there he asked me about my mining experiences and other things, examined me in most things chest, heart, etc. but did not trouble about my hernia. He gave me a clear certificate and I went straight away to thank Dr. McNab. We had a few drinks…
Based at the Avondale Racecourse in Auckland, the miners began their training. Like many of his mining counterparts, Williamson was older than the average soldier, and found the rigours of military life to be somewhat challenging.
Reveille at six o’clock followed by a run around the Avondale course a little over a mile. As most of us were middle-aged and not in the best of condition a lot fell out on the way… We had to work hard at drill as it was vital for us to become some sort of soldier in a very limited time…
Most of us were really trying to be good soldiers and learn all we could, being mostly miners and bushmen used to being our own bosses and thinking for ourselves. I think we did very well in our efforts, in getting used to discipline and being ordered round like a lot of school children.
After two months of training, the Tunnelling Company embarked for England on 18 December 1915.
In 1916, they became the first group of New Zealanders to arrive on the Western Front, and their first job was to begin counter-mining at Vimy Ridge, near Arras.
Mining was a highly unionised industry, and miners were characterised as hardened individuals who, despite being willing to do their duty, would not readily submit to authority.
To compensate, their military commander, Major John Evelyn Duigan, adopted a more flexible approach. He often talked with Williamson and other miners directly, discussing operations, rather than just issuing orders.
Williamson was present for most of the tunnelling work done at Arras. He described the tunnels and the tactics used for the battle of Arras in 1917.
Our tunnels were about six foot four - by four foot. A tramline was laid all along right the way up to within a few feet of the German front line. Then a lot of holes about nine inches in diameter were bored using a post hole borer…
Before the battle started on April ninth the nine inch holes were filled with Ammonal. The holes starting at twelve or fourteen feet below the surface gradually were bore upwards till they got within four or five feet of the surface. When exploded & cleared out they left a trench for the Infantry to walk right through the German frontlines.
On the 2 June 1917, under “a shower of shrapnel”, Williamson ventured out, after some fighting, to retrieve a wounded British officer. Miraculously, he came back unscathed. He was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field.
Soon after, in July, he was admitted to hospital because his hernia was giving him “bad trouble”, he spent the rest of the war in England, having been declared physically unfit for further service.
Williamson arrived back in New Zealand at Christmas 1918, and was discharged in the new year.
He died in Auckland on 24 July 1956.