24 April 2007
A memorial to the New Zealand tunnellers who built a vast underground city used by thousands of British troops during WW1 was unveiled in France in early April. New Zealand’s Ambassador to France, Sarah Dennis, who unveiled the memorial, said, “This memorial is a welcome and fitting tribute to the courage and tenacity of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company. The scale and resilience of the network they constructed is remarkable: Arras deserves its prominent place in New Zealand’s shared memories of World War One.”
The tunnel network under the city of Arras in northern France, was built between 1916 and 1918 by members of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, who were specially recruited from the gold and coal mining districts of New Zealand.
The 400-strong Kiwi tunnellers, after basic military training, fought the Germans underground. When the tunnellers arrived in Arras, the Germans already had a complex of tunnels under the British trenches and were in control of the war below ground. Within weeks of their arrival the New Zealanders had grabbed control from the Germans and had driven them back under their own trench systems and largely knocked them out of the underground battle.
The underground war was a deadly affair which hinged on the speed of the digging. Tunnellers would dig a long shaft under the enemy trench system and carve out a bigger cave at the end of the tunnel. They would then pack the end cave with about 3000 pounds of explosives and detonate it. When an explosion of this size went off underground, everyone in nearby tunnels, even unconnected to the explosion, was killed by carbon monoxide created by the blast. As they dug, the tunnellers would listen to the digging sounds of the enemy. When digging stopped you could hear the enemy packing explosives and knew that if you weren't ready to blow, you’d lost the race. The New Zealand tunnellers dug at three times the rate of the German tunnellers and won the race virtually every time. Only once during the war did the enemy blow a mine before the Kiwis were able to counter-mine.
Having beaten the enemy tunnellers the Kiwi tunnellers joined a number of large chalk quarries built in medieval times to develop two cave systems under the main roads of Arras. In one system each cave is named after a New Zealand town – Russell, Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Blenheim, Christchurch, Dunedin, and finally, just before the German front line, Bluff. These caves were so massive that an entire division of 20,000 men could be accommodated underground. This kept them out of the shellfire above ground. There was running water, electric lighting, kitchens, latrines, a light rail system and a medical centre with a fully equipped operating theatre. The final assault at Arras was mounted from this system.
During the final British offensives in 1918, when the war moved away from Arras and no more tunnels were required, the Kiwi tunnellers turned to bridge building. In spite of being miners, not engineers, they were incredibly successful. The prefab Hopkins Bridge was designed to cover only about a 40 metre span. British engineers were bridging a maximum of 30 metres with a single span, but the New Zealand tunnellers as their first bridging task, in September 1918, happily put two bridges together and built the longest self-supporting bridge of the war, a 60 metre single-span bridge over the Havrincourt canal.
This page was last reviewed on 30 April 2007 and is current.