From the beginning of 1916, the Allies began preparing an attack at Vimy Ridge over a front of 22,5 km before the city of Arras: The Battle of Arras. Arras itself was already completely destroyed in 1914. The offensive was meant as a diversion attack for the Nivelles offensive at the Chemin des Dames, north of the Aisne river.
Under the paving of Arras, lie impressive chalk quarries, which were dug since the Middle Ages.
446 members of the New-Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company, a unit of General Allenby’s 3rd Army, were in charge of linking up the quarries to create an underground network, where 24.000 soldiers could be quartered, waiting for the offensive to start at 9 April 1917.
Outside the entrance of the quarry is a wall,
commemorating the Battle of Arras with the names of all units involved.
Lt. General Haldane's citation of the New Zealand Tunnellers
is also on this Memorial wall:
At the entrance of the quarry:
these light railway wagons were of great importance
for removing the rocks from the quarry.
The other side of the wall along the path downward
to the Wellington Quarry.
After going down 20 metres deep in a glass elevator,
an audioguided tour, accompanied by a friendly human guide, takes the visitors into the Wellington tunnel system.
The New Zealand Tunnellers named this dark kingdom
after their home towns.
The southern part of the network became a mini New Zealand.
From one huge quarry called Auckland,
soldiers could march through to Wellington, Nelson, Blenheim,
Christchurch, Dunedin, and so on.
446 New Zealand Tunnelling Engineers, all professional miners,
worked together with a battalion of "Bantams",
Yorkshire miners below the Army's minimum length of 5 ft. 3 inch.
In about 6 months, the Tunnelers created two
in total 12 miles long, and capable of hiding 24.000 soldiers
Of course with such a mass of men, latrines were indispensable.
Canteens, chapels, power stations, a light railway, ...
... and even a fully equiped hospital with 700 beds
were all established in this labyrinth.
Soldiers Graffitti of 1917.
These corridors were not the narrow and low shafts,
earlier used elsewhere on the front
for underground mining activity.
These tunnels had to be wide enough for soldiers to march in one direction,
and wide enough to let stretcher parties pass,
coming from the other way.
This modern net hangs before this meters high hole in the ceiling.
It protects visitors for still falling lose rocks.
The New Zealand quarries, like the Auckland and Wellington,
were linked to the northern section of quarries of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Crewe, and London and others,
like a side-tunnel, which led to a trio of quarries called Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney.
The New Zealand Tunnelers created the most extensive underground network ever in British military history!
This 1917 construction was made to protect the soldiers
against falling rocks.
The Arras attack was set for Eastern Monday 1917.
A week before Eastern the Generals started filling up
their underground city with soldiers.
This large operation had to be done in total secrecy.
The soldiers entered the network through a few cellars, "boves",
Then they walked to their underground positions,
in the destroyed city.
and waited there for several days.
Each quarry, a maze of caves, housed a whole regiment,
each of which had it's own number.
In this rather disorientating, dark underworld,
24.000 soldiers waited for more than a week, playing cards,
singing, and writing letters.
The troops found their designated quarters by following
the painted numbers.
On several locations one can still detect wires of the electricity system.
Officers had their own latrines.
"To Battalion Headquarters".
This corridor leads of course to ...
... the room of the Battalion's Commander. His table is still there.
We move on passing this narrow gallery.
Furtheron in the maze: tiny drawings of soldiers on the walls.
For very understandable reasons,
these are protected with a screen against tourist fingers.
Nearby this elephant on this wall, another soldier's drawing.
"To A Section".
Always important in these circumstances: a large water bassin.
The larger routes had to accommodate a supply railway as well.
We have trouble to keep pace with our hasty guide,
who already has been going on, on his way to Exit No. 10.
When the time came, at 5.30 AM on 9 April 1917, Eastern Monday, ...
... the soldier received a cup of Rhum
from these Special Reserve Depot jugs to numb the fear, ...
..., and the troops marched to their exit tunnels,
up their designated staircases, out in to the open.
The infantry soldiers of the British Third Army found upstairs
a carefully timed artillery barrage,
blasting the German positions ahead of them.
The Germans were surprised to see their enemy so suddenly
a mile closer, than anyone of them had ever expected.
The Germans surrendered, often bootless,
and still in night clothes.
North of Arras, around Vimy Ridge,
the Canadian Divisions of the 1st. Army faced a much stiffer
opposition of the Germans for the next three days.
But the Canadians, too, had been helped by their own
extensive tunnel systems, leading up to the German lines.
The Wellington Quarry itself is now a Memorial.
It preserves the memory of these thousands of soldiers,
billeted here underground, a few metres from the frontline,
before their surprise attack on the German positions.
In the next page about Vimy Ridge,
more details about the Battle for Arras
and the Canadian Divisions.
Continue to the next chapter: