La Carrière Wellington
You’re standing at the entrance to La Carrière Wellington, which is one of the most fascinating museums on the Western Front. This is the town of Arras, and La Carrière means ‘quarry’. The Wellington quarry was named by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company that operated in Arras from 1916 to August 1918. La Carrière Wellington is next to the main Arras-Bapaume highway, and you’re here because, in late 1914, the war of movement - that everyone wanted - shuddered to a halt and turned into trench warfare.
The Germans went onto the defensive and consolidated their positions along the Western Front, and the Allies, the British and the French, endeavoured to break the trench deadlock - but struggled to penetrate the German lines. So, with trenches stretching from the English channel to the Swiss border, it became siege warfare. Part of that, particularly in this sector, which was a mining area, involved tunnelling underground. The Germans first started it in this area, and the Allies quickly responded, and so began ‘underground warfare’ - mining and countermining.
It became so important that the British government put out a call to its dominions for tunnelling companies, and in 1915 New Zealand raised a tunnelling company formed of miners from all over New Zealand. A lot of them were over-age, and they were pretty ‘rough and ready’ soldiers, a bit averse to authority - but they were very good tunnellers. They arrived in England by ship, trained at the Engineering School in the South of England, and then came over here in early 1916, under the command of Major J. E. Duigan. In fact, the New Zealand Tunnelling Company was the first New Zealand unit to serve on the Western Front. They were sent up to the Vimy sector, just North of Arras, where they took over from a French mining company and began operating there. Later on, they were sent down to where you are now - and they took over the Arras sector. By the time the New Zealand Tunnelling Company arrived, the city had been evacuated, and they started investigating the tunnels and the cellars under the city. They discovered that when the cities’ fortifications were rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries, Arras had mined its building material from a series of underground limestone quarries.
La Carrière Wellington is one of the seven quarries that are down the line of the Arras-Bapaume road, and the New Zealanders realised that these quarries were enormous, and had the potential to be underground cities.
“The idea was to connect all the caves, some very large ones & some smaller ones. They had been formed by the French taking out the chalk in big blocks for building purposes. Some dates I saw on the chalk walls dated back to 1300 or 1400AD.”
Sapper J Williamson
They looked at a plan to connect the quarries to each other with tunnels. One could start in the centre of Arras, go down into the cellars, of any building, then into the underground sewer system. From here, a New Zealand-made tunnel led - from cavern to cavern, all the way, to right under the German frontline. The British soon realised that there were two quarry systems - this one, which the New Zealand Tunnelling Company worked on, and one down the other main road out of the city, the Arras-Cambrai road, which a British tunnelling company worked on. But here, this is where New Zealand tunnellers created their very own ‘New Zealand’ underground. The nearest cavern to the centre of the city they called ‘Russell’, and the one closest to the German frontline, they called ‘Bluff’.
Between December and April 1917, when the Battle of Arras was launched, they created an underground city which could accommodate well over 12,000 soldiers in total. These amazing interconnecting caverns had light railway, running water, an electrical system with lighting, toilets, kitchens, mess halls, hospitals, barracks, headquarters, and communications centres.
“To make these caverns habitable was no easy matter, for as soon as they were opened to the cold wet winter air the chalk commenced to swell and crack, and slabs weighing many tons would come crashing down without an instant’s warning...it is a great tribute to the mining ability of the company that beyond one or two small knocks not a single man of these thousands was hurt by falling chalk.”
J C Neill
The New Zealanders ran the entire system so that British divisions, in this case the 3rd Division, in the New Zealand area, could come down and occupy the tunnels, to prepare for the attack.
“These cellars and underground quarries formed the basis of the scheme on which the company now embarked. They were to be connected, opened up, and made habitable for troops, so that when the day for attack came the men could issue from them safe, warm and dry, and utterly unsuspected by the enemy.”
J C Neill
On the morning of 9 April 1917 at zero hour, exit points were blown, just before the German trenches, and the British soldiers poured out and attacked. Men were ferried forward by light rail, safely underground, all the way to the frontline. The Germans must have wondered where all these British soldiers came from - or where they had been hiding, but all the while they’d been underneath them. The first day of the Battle of Arras was one of outstanding success. Indeed, it surprised the British as much as the Germans. But, the days that followed bogged down into attritional warfare, grinding down the soldiers of both sides. From mining, deep underground, to aircraft flying overhead - warfare had reached terrible new heights.
The air war over Arras is an important story, and involves New Zealand pilots. The Battle of Arras was a disaster for the Royal Flying Corps. Known as ‘Bloody April’ - the Allies were outclassed by the ‘Flying Circus’ led by Manfred von Richthofen - otherwise known as the Red Baron. Superior German machines, pilots and tactics led to horrific casualties for the British. In almost every dogfight during that month, the outcome was the destruction of Allied planes and pilots. Among these casualties were three New Zealanders.
The New Zealand tunnellers stayed in Arras, working on projects like this one, up until the final offensive in August 1918. They then joined up with the New Zealand Engineers, who had similar skills, many of them having worked on the main trunk line in New Zealand. They built and repaired bridges, and their outstanding achievement was at Havrincourt - the longest single span bridge built on the Western Front by the British Army in the First World War.