12 April 2007
A memorial to the brave New Zealand tunnellers who built a vast underground city used by thousands of British troops during WW1 was unveiled last weekend in France.
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, who had undertaken only basic military training, worked to combat the Germans, burrowing under no-man’s land to blow up and destroy the enemy trenches above.
New Zealand’s Ambassador to France, Sarah Dennis, who unveiled the memorial on Sunday 8 April, 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 memorial is to remember the 41 New Zealand tunnellers who lost their lives at Arras and the 151 who were wounded – many who were buried under tonnes of rubble from German counter-mining.
The Kiwi tunnellers joined a number of large chalk quarries built in medieval times to develop two tunnel systems running under the main roads of Arras. In one tunnel 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.
Working parties to assist the tunnellers were sent from the New Zealand Division and included Maori and Pacific Islanders of the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion.
Through the winter of 1916 as the town of Arras above was destroyed by German artillery the underground city grew large enough to accommodate 20,000 men. There was running water, electric lighting, kitchens, latrines, a light rail system and a medical centre with a fully equipped operating theatre.
On 9 April 1917 15,000 men moved through the tunnels to launch the Battle of Arras.
The New Zealand tunnellers remained in France, repairing roads, developing other tunnel systems, and building and repairing bridges. They returned to New Zealand in March 1919.
The tunnels were closed up after 1945 and lay undiscovered until 1990. Since then considerable work has been conducted and in early 2008 a new museum will be opened at the tunnels site.
Note to editors: The New Zealand Tunnelling Company numbered 16 officers and 407 other ranks, plus one officer and two NZ Medical Corps, 19 NZ Army Service Corps, and one NZ Army Pay Corps, totaling 446.
Media wanting photographs or further information should contact Ally Clelland, Defence Public Relations 04 496 0273 or 021 569 130