Fifteen metres underground in the French city of Arras, you’ll find lots of caves. They date back to medieval times, and were used as chalk quarries before they were commandeered during the First World War in 1916. New Zealand and British miners were enlisted to extend the cave network to the front line in an effort to surprise German soldiers. By the time they were done, the cave network extended to more than 20km.
Carriere Wellington (Wellington Quary) gets its name from the city in New Zealand, while neighbouring caves were also given New Zealand city names. This aided the 500 New Zealand miners navigate the cave system, while the British soldiers used names from British cities. The cave pictured is one of many built by the kiwis.
Eight days before the start of the Arras offensive on 9th April 1917, 25,000 soldiers were sent to the caves to wait for the signal. The caves turned into a city underground. The soldiers cooked, ate, slept, talked and went to the toilet underground. Conditions were damp, cramped and cold. The tour of the caves reveals the story of a soldier, who although lucky enough to score a bunk bed, was dripped on constantly from the rocks above. He slept with a waterproof sheet over him in an effort to stay warm and dry.
Finally, at 5.30am on 9th April, the solders used dynamite to blast open the exits near the German trenches. They gained 11km of ground quickly, but the offensive was called off some time later when allied forces casualties reached 4,000 a day.
The caves remain as a lasting tribute to those who lost their lives during and after construction of the caves. The tour guides provide interesting anecdotes and the multilingual headphones and low lighting make the soldiers’ stories really come alive. If you’re visiting Arras, make sure you save a few hours to visit the Carriere Wellington.