The Sapper’s Lee Enfield, World War I,
During World War I, the stalemate of trench warfare led both sides to attempt tunnel warfare. The common strategy was for one side to attempt to dig a tunnel under the trenches. The tunnel was filled with explosives, detonated, and it was hoped that the explosion would eliminate the enemy above ground, thus allowing a breakthrough. Perhaps the most prolific user of such a tactic were the British, whose Royal Engineers, a.k.a. “sappers”, were employed from experienced Welsh, Cornish, and Australian miners.
The Germans didn’t simply allow the British to simply mine through their trenches at will. To stop the British, the Germans responded by digging countermines. It was not uncommon for both sides to stumble upon each other, leading to a pitched gun battle in the tight confines of a tunnel hundreds of feet below ground. In such combat the use of pistols was ideal, however only officers were issued with revolvers. The rest were issued with standard Lee Enfield infantry rifles. Unfortunately, the long and unwieldy rifles would not do for tunnel warfare.
To solve this problem the British sappers made pistols of their own by cutting down their standard issue rifles. Often the stock and the barrel was chopped down to a mere stub. The short little weapon would have surely kicked very hard, not to mention make a deafening noise when fired. When possible, sappers used specially loaded ammunition which was underpowered compared to regular rifle ammunition.
The sappers’ finest hour occurred in 1917 at the Battle of Messines. Located south of Ypres, the countryside was dominated by a large hill called “hill 60”. Early on in the war the Germans heavily fortified the hill, managing to hold it throughout most of the war. Then, in 1917, sappers of the 2nd British Army mined 22 tunnels underneath the large hill. The hill was then packed with almost 500 tons of explosives, then detonated. It was said that the massive explosion was so loud that citizens in London could hear it. The resulting explosion devastated German forward defenses, and allowed the British to make a successful breakthrough resulting in an Allied Victory.