From November 1916 to March 1917, 500 tunnellers from across the world in New Zealand developed and interconnected a vast network of underground galleries in the south-east of Arras. The objective was clear: to move as close as possible to the enemy lines and thus exploit the advantage of surprise. On 9 April 1917 at 05:30 hours, English time, after spending a week living cheek by jowl underground, 24,000 British soldiers erupted from the tunnels, taking the German front lines by surprise. The assault marked the start of the Battle of Arras which mobilised forces from across the Commonwealth until the 17 May, over a 20-kilometre front line stretching from Vimy in the north to Bullecourt in the south.
80 metres of tunnel per day
For six months, the Wellington Quarry and its neighbours rang to the incessant sound of pickaxes.
The achievement of these 500 New Zealanders (including a Maori battalion) brought here from the other side of the world to interconnect a labyrinth of chalk tunnels was nothing less than epic. From November 1916 to March 1917, the “N-Zs” manually excavated a full 8 kilometres – that is, 80 metres – every day. And still today this network connects a vast underground grid that extends right across the city of Arras. Which is 20 kilometres of subterranean galleries! A unique accomplishment.
A city beneath our feet
Apart from the technical aspect, the tunnellers’ skills allowed the British High Command to establish a veritable city for its men .
Bear in mind that for a whole week, 24,000 men were required to live together 20 metres below ground… Everything had to be planned down to the very last detail, starting with the installation of an electricity supply and the laying of rail tracks. The companies of the Royal Engineers modelled the design the quarries on an operational HQ. Here in this strategic chalk cathedral, the men eat, slept and showered, communication tools were installed and weapons were stored.
The story continues
Like its neighbours the Nelson and Blenheim quarries, the Wellington Quarry owes its name to a location in New Zealand, the home country of its creators.
In order to get their bearings underground, the tunnellers assigned the names of New Zealand cities to the various sectors, according to their position.
Today, the Wellington Quarry introduces visitors to the preparations for the Battle of Arras and allows them share the living conditions experienced by those soldiers ahead of the assault on 9 April 1917.