The underground memorial site at Arras, the Wellington Quarry – Carrière Wellington – should be high on the list of things to see when visiting the historic town in northern France.
Most people are familiar with the Somme Battles, Passchendaele and Ypres, but fewer are aware of the sacrifices that were made at Arras: France alone lost 30,000 men. A visit to The Wellington Quarry, which is in the middle of the old city of Arras, reveals a little-known story of World War I and is a good place from which to try and understand the horrors of World War I.
First, a little bit of history to set the scene.
The battles of Verdun which involved the French, and the battles of the Somme which involved the British and Commonwealth in 1916 had been disasters with terrible loss of life. Arras was strategic to the Allies and, uniquely in World War 1, was under British command from 1916-1918, but was under continual bombardment from German troops. To create a new offensive on the Vimy-Arras front, the Allied High Command decided to tunnel through the chalk quarries under Arras which had been dug out centuries before to provide building material for the town. The plan was to construct a sort of barracks, a series of rooms and passages in which 24,000 Allied troops could hide in readiness for the planned attack and for the tunnels to go right to the edge of the enemy’s front line which would allow them to burst out and surprise them.
The Wellington Quarry Museum tells this story of this quarrying, the lives of the townspeople and the troops, and the lead up to the battle of Arras on April 9th, 1917 and a walk through the tunnels lets you experience something of what it was like to live in these depths for two years.
In March 1916 the first of the skilled men required for this job arrived on the Western Front – 500 miners of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, mostly Maori and Pacific Islanders, gold miners from Waihi and Karangahake, coal miners from the South Island and labourers from the Railways. Discouraged from enlisting due to the essential nature of their industry, they were now plunged right into the thick of it, working alongside experienced miners of the Royal Engineer tunnelling company, miners from the Yorkshire mines and tunnellers who had worked to dig out the London Underground.
The first task was to create primitive underground living-quarters, and with superhuman effort they dug 80 metres per day to construct two interlinking labyrinths. They worked only with pick axes and shovels as the Germans were just above them so no explosives could be used . Conditions were primitive and dangerous and although the temperature was a regular 11 degrees, it was continually damp: there were many deaths, many injuries.
By April 1917 they had created a working underground city with running water, lighting, kitchens and latrines: a rail system and a hospital were up and running and space for 20,000 soldiers was found even if it was cramped. Completed in less than six months 25 kms of tunnels eventually accommodated 24,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who, as with the battlefields above ground, gave their sectors the names of their home towns. For the British it was London, Liverpool and Manchester, for the New Zealanders it was Wellington, Nelson and Blenheim. Nowadays, Wellington is the only one of the quarries that can be visited, the others now mostly lost or covered over by buildings and car parks.
In dim light, a lift takes you 20 metres underground, during which the guide starts the extraordinary story of the Wellington Quarry tunnellers against a recorded background of men talking, pick axes hitting stone and the occasional explosion. In breaks in the tunnels small screens pop out with black and white images of soldiers working or at ease and disappear just as quickly.
You’re told about the one bucket of water to a dozen men. You feel the presence of the soldiers, and you hear voices. “Bonjour Tommy” says a Frenchman against footage of civilians and soldiers chatting in the streets. You hear letters written home, and poems from the war poets, like Siegfried Sassoon’s The General.
“Good morning. Good morning” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card”, grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack
. . . . . . .
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Artefacts left behind by the soldiers are on display, helmets, dog tags, bottles, boots, electrical fittings, railway carts, bullets. Pictures scratched in the chalk of the walls are pointed out, names of sweethearts, and humourous signs like “Wanted, Housekeeper”.
You are almost lulled into a false sense of normality as you listen to the sounds of men talking and laughing. Then you reach the end and your guide points to where the exits were dynamited to enable the men to go up the sloping passageway that led to the light, over the top and into battle at 05.30 on the morning of 9th April, 1917. It was snowing and deathly cold when the order was given to burst out of the quarries. It was Easter Monday.
24,000 men erupted from the earth: initially the assault was a success. The Canadians seized Vimy Ridge; Monchy-le-Preux was taken; the soldiers of Australia, Britain and the Commonwealth fought hard and the Germans, taken by surprise, were pushed back 11 km. But then the Allied troops, on orders from above, were told to hold back, during which time the Germans, who had retreated, re-formed and called up re-inforcements. Every day, for two months after that, 4,000 commonwealth soldiers died, before the offensive was eventually called of.
The film of the battle (which those in charge considered a success by the standards of the time) can be seen upstairs as you exit.
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 51 26 95
Entrance adult 6.90 euros, child under 18 years 3.20 euros
Open Daily 10am-12:30pm, 1:30-6pm
Closed Jan 1st, Jan 4th-29th, 2016, Dec 25th, 2016