The medieval caves that helped to win a war

<Carriere Wellington caves in Arras, France >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.

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I'm a technical author, journalist and writer from Australia who has been living in Europe since 2000 and exploring the world from there. My passions are writing, snow sports and travel.

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4 comments on “The medieval caves that helped to win a war
  1. Very interesting. I had no idea of their existence. I wanted to feature your post on my Wednesday bloggers round-up(reproduce a paragraph and a photo with a click to the actual post) but I see I can’t “copy-paste”. Would you agree to my doing so?

  2. Wendy says:

    Fraussie, I’ve emailed you with the text. Feel free to use it! 🙂

  3. Emm says:

    How fascinating. Arras was one of the cities I wanted to visit when we were in France but we’ll have to do that next time. I loved learning about all the WWI and WWII history in the region.

  4. Wendy says:

    I have a friend in Arras who tells me it’s changed a lot since he was a kid – much nicer now than it was then, and they’re embracing their history at last. For instance, these caves were only reopened to the public around four years ago!

About me

Wendy Hollands writer in Annecy, France

I'm an experienced professional writer based in the French Alps. I enjoy learning French language nuances, winter sports and travel. Read more...

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