Bravery of Tunnelling Corps remembered in exhibition at Maitland Regional Museum | PHOTOS

TUNNELLING CORPS:  Janece McDonald with John Fenwick who is holding a picture of his father, John sr.  	Picture by PERRY DUFFIN
TUNNELLING CORPS: Janece McDonald with John Fenwick who is holding a picture of his father, John sr. Picture by PERRY DUFFIN

The Maitland Regional Museum has partnered with the Geological Survey of NSW and Friends of Grossmann House to tell the story of the Maitland men who laid down their lives as part of the Tunnelling Corps during World War I. 

They are calling on the descendents of local members of the corps to help them shine a light on the amazing feats of the subterranean soldiers.

The unique military outfit specialised in the futuristic-sounding geological warfare. Their missions on the Western front saw them tunnel beneath the salient to plant explosives and spy on the enemy by detecting their soundwaves through layers of rock with “geo-phones”. 

Hunter townships, with their highly trained coal mining ­populations, were targeted by recruiters who sought older men with engineering, geological and explosive expertise. 

Former Legacy chairman and a former RSL president John Fenwick, a veteran of World War II, is the son of a Maitland coal miner and tunneller. 

His father, John sr, was gassed twice and shot as the Ottoman troops tried to stop the Tunnelling Corps from exploding the critical Hill 60.

“They reckon they heard the ­explosion from London,” Mr Fenwick said.

“I’m extremely proud of my dear old Dad and I’m happy I get to tell his story.”

The battle took its toll on John sr, who returned from the claustrophobic tunnels sickened from gas and ­traumatised from battle.

“The poor old devil,” Mr Fenwick said. 

“He couldn’t sleep and he’d tell me I’ve seen so many dead, son, it haunts me still.

“He fought man-to-man in those battles.”

The Tunnelling Corps was, in part, the invention of TW Edgeworth David, a prominent explorer and geologist renowned in his time for discovering the Hunter Coalfields.

Maitland Regional Museum’s Janece McDonald said the aim of the exhibition was to celebrate the corps, raise publicity about their little-known but daring and important mission, and acknowledge the 130 or so local men who volunteered for the corps.

“The expertise of the Australian ­tunnellers was considered beyond all others,” Dr McDonald said.

“Their expertise gave confidence to the British command who knew that if the tunnellers were assigned a mission they would go over and beyond to accomplish it.”

The exhibition will be held from Friday, October 9, to Sunday, October 25, at Brough House in Church Street Maitland. 

Entry fee will be a gold coin. The exhibition will be open 10am to 3pm though it can be seen other days by appointment.

Descendents and relatives are urged to contact the museum via email on,, or phone Dr McDonald on 4933 4450 or Sandy on 4988 6454.


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