Rank: Sapper
Number: 82783
Unit: 171st Tunnelling Company ROYAL ENGINEERS
Date of Death: 19 April 1915
Age: 23 (based on 1901 Census information)
Cemetery: Menin Gate Memorial, Ieper, Belgium

Robert Clifford is the only man commemorated on these pages who is known to have died due to his own foolishness and in disobedience to orders.

He had been born in Marsden, West Yorkshire and, at the time of the 1901 Census was living not far away at Mirfield. The Census shows his parents to be James (a railway navvy) and Jenny. He was the fourth of their seven children. His other siblings were Louisa (then 17), William (15), Mary (11), Martha (7), John (4) and Henry (2). Nothing else is known of Robert's life other than he was living in Cheadle at the time he enlisted in Manchester. However, the record of the 171st Tunnelling Company suggests that its initial members were miners and other s with the obviously needed digging skills.

The Companies were new, but the tactics were a revival of an ancient art of tunnelling under an enemy's defences, in this case with the intent of placing explosives under the German trench system. Robert's Company was first deployed in March 1915 in the Hill 60 area near Ypres (now Ieper). Over the following month, three tunnels were dug across the 100 yards of No Man's Land. The tunnels were known as M1, M2 and M3 and it's probable that Robert worked on M3.

This was difficult and dangerous work. The book "RE Works in the Great War" records that "Ventilation was very difficult: the service blower was found to be much too noisy and shift was made with blacksmiths' bellows fitted to indiarubber hosepipe. Lighting was by candles until the mines were charged, then ordinary electric hand torches were used, but were found to be troublesome as the batteries last a very short time. Spoil was removed on specially made silent trolleys, running on wooden rails. The earth was all filled into sandbags which were built into breastwork and the work was in this way kept quite secret."

On 2 April, the enemy was heard also digging a tunnel and it seemed that the Germans might break into the British M3 gallery at any time. Digging work was suspended and a charge of 500 pounds of guncotton (a blasting explosive) was quickly placed so that it could be detonated at any time. By 10th April, all three tunnels were completed.

Zero hour was set for 19.00 on 17 April and, at the appointed time, three Royal Engineer officers hit the plungers, setting off all the explosives. Debris flew 200 - 300 feet high and scattered for 300 yards. The crater formed by the M3 mine was 30 feet across and 30 feet deep. There had been many German casualties and the attacking British infantry captured the hill with relative ease. They beat off attacks over the next two days.

During this time, the Engineers officers had issued orders that men must not go into the tunnels as the gas from the explosion would linger for some time and would be dangerous. Everyone must wait until the area had been properly checked. However, it would seem that curiosity got the better of Robert and another soldier (believed to be a Sapper John Williams who lived in Manchester). They went into the M3 tunnel and were indeed overcome by the gas. The Company's War Diary records "2 Sappers asphyxiated in mines having discarded in disobedience of orders". Neither Robert nor John Williams have known graves.

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