The City of Arras is built on top of many of the quarries from which its buildings were constructed. Under the main town squares these ancient quarries, dating from perhaps the 10th century, have long been used for storage and shelter; known as the Boves they can today be visited from beneath the Town Hall (Hotel de Ville). To the south east of the city are further quarries which are deeper and most likely mediaeval. In World War I the front line remained static for many years about one and a half miles to the east of Arras and an ingenious scheme was contrived to construct underground links between the City and the trenches.
The tunnels commenced in the Boves and linked up the quarry complex through a number of newly constructed passages. The river Crinchon which supplied the citadel moat is culverted near the railway station and these culverts (also used as sewers) also form part of the network. Two separate tunnel systems were built; the more northerly system was known as the Saint Sauveur Tunnel and was built by British forces. We will be visiting part of the more southerly network, built by soldiers from New Zealand and known as the Ronville Tunnel.
The New Zealand Tunnelling Company was formed in 1915 to help the Allies tunnel under the front line to counter German tunnelling and to launch counter-attacks. The Company was about 450 strong and made up of experienced miners from the railway and mining industries. The Company – all volunteers – sailed for Europe on 19 December 1915. They tended to build slightly larger tunnels than their European colleagues, believing that the extra space and room to swing a pick made up for the extra spoil.
As the former quarries were progressively linked up, the New Zealanders named them (retaining a semblance of geographical accuracy) after the towns of their homeland far away. Thus Nelson, Blenheim, Christchurch and Dunedin eventually lead to Bluff. On completion the underground space provided kitchens, hospitals, Headquarters and shelter for up to 25,000 men. Electricity and water were installed and the New Zealand town names retained on signposts (the more northerly system takes one instead from London to Glasgow with the Channel Isles to one side). As well as shelter, the tunnels provided a safe and hidden route from which to launch the surprise attack that began the Battle of Arras in 1917. During World War II some of the shelters were re-used as civilian air-raid shelters. Like much underground space they were then largely forgotten.
Subterranea Britannica first visited Wellington quarry in 2001 under the knowledgeable guidance of the city archaeologist, M Alain Jacques. Since then the city has invested around four million Euros in opening up around 400 metres of tunnel as a museum. Descending about 22 metres, the tour gives a fascinating, poignant and authentic glimpse of this underground military maze of a century ago.