One of the must see sites for visitors to the historic town of Arras in the north of France is the Wellington Quarry – Carrière Wellington – an underground memorial site about a 10-15 minute walk from the main town.
The Wellington Quarry Arras reveals a poignant and not very well-known story of World War I.
Arras is built on chalk beds and the town’s buildings were built from stone quarried from them from the middle ages until the 19th Century and then they were abandoned until the early 20th Century. In 1916 the British troops based on one side of the by now battered and ruined town decided to use the forgotten quarries in an offensive against the Germany forces who were on the other side of Arras. The plan was to dig tunnels which would take the allied forces to the edge of the front line and surprise the enemy. The underground passages were to shelter the soldiers from German shelling and enable troops to go right to the enemy safely and secretly.
To enable the plan to work would require the skills of miners and in March 1916, 500 men arrived in Arras – they were the first New Zealanders to arrive at the Western Front and were a “non-divisional” unit, miners of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company.
Predominantly Maori and Pacific Island miners, gold miners from Waihi and Karangahake, labourers from the Railways and Public Works departments; coal miners from the West Coast of the South Island. Generally they were discouraged from enlisting due to the essential nature of their industry and now they were to be right in the thick of it and helping to win a critical battle.
They worked alongside the Royal Engineer tunnelling company, men who had dug out the London Underground, experienced miners.
They toiled with pick axes and shovels, no explosives or modern methods. Conditions underground were primitive, cold, damp and dangerous, there were many deaths, many injuries. By April 1917 they had created an underground city with electric lights, running water, electric lights, kitchens, latrines; a light rail system and a fully equipped hospital were installed and there was space for 20,000 soldiers to shelter. As they had entered each medieval quarry, joining them all up, the miners named them after New Zealand towns – Auckland to Wellington.
Wellington is the most accessible of the quarries and the one that can be visited today, the others are now mostly lost, covered over by buildings and car parks.
The only way to tour the Wellington Quarry is with a guide, there are 12km of passages, it is dark and cold and very easy to get lost.
20 metres underground via a lift the guide tells the extraordinary story of Carrière Wellington. How the miners dug and created this underground world. In the background the sound of pick hitting rock, men talking, laughing. There is dim light and the audio guides provided tell of historic times that to the men in this dark place were just another day of work.
When the quarry was rediscovered in the 1990s after being closed off at the end of World War II, it was an incredible find. Artefacts left behind by the soldiers remained in the places they’d been left – helmets lying on the floors, dog tags, ancient electrical fittings, railway carts, bottles, boots, tools, bullets – perfectly preserved. The guide tells anecdotes about the men who dug, the soldiers who sheltered there before taking part in the brutal epic Battle of Arras in April 1917.
Water for washing was cold, there would be one bucket of water to a dozen men. Some worked out that if they went last, the water was warmer, everyone wanted to be last.
Grooming equipment was found, even at such times of horror the men carried out everyday tasks, shaving, cutting their hair.
The guide points out names painted on the wall or pictures drawn, someone’s sweetheart, the name of a town in New Zealand, sign reading “Wanted, housekeeper” – they had a sense of humour, hope, still.
The men in the tunnels were grateful to be there, they knew their comrades on the front line had it worse.
On the tour you are almost lulled into a false sense of perspective, the sounds of men talking, laughing, the acknowledgement it could be worse, the stories, then at the end the guide stops before a set of stairs leading up.
Here, she says, is where the exits were dynamited to enable the men to emerge at 05.30 on the morning of 9th April, 1917. Up the stairs, over the top and into battle.
24,000 men would go from the quarry tunnels, into one of the bloodiest battles of World War I. All along the quarry’s labyrinthine passages men erupted from the earth – the Canadians seized Vimy Ridge, elsewhere the soldiers of Australia, Britain and the Commonwealth fought hard and the Germans, taken by surprise, were pushed back 11 km. Those in charge considered this an extraordinary success by the standards of the time. For two months 4,000 commonwealth soldiers died every day before the offensive was called off…
An emotional end to this hour long tour with film, video clips, stories from a passionate guide and the sights and sounds of days gone by, impossible not to feel awful sadness at such a waste and you’ll see many of the visitors shed tears.
Each year, on 9th April at 05.30 a memorial service attended by thousands is held at the Wellington Quarry.
See the Carriere Wellington website en.carrierewellington.com for details on opening times etc.