Monday, January 13, 2014

Part Three - Amiens and Arras

Our camping halt (or aire) in Bapaume, near Arras
In late 1916, French and British Army heads decided on their plans for the new year. The war had reached a stalemate, with developments in armaments and defensive techniques (such as guns that could fire longer distances, and the heavy use of trenches) favouring the sort of war where heavy losses and hard fighting brought only small territorial gains. In essence, it had become a war of attrition. Something needed to be done to move things forward. The French General Nivelle came up with a plan for an attack in the Artois Region. After much discussion, the plan was adopted and D-day was set for April 9, 1917. A key part of this plan would be to use the quarries beneath Arras as a troop holding-point, from which the men could advance close to German front lines and spring out, taking the enemy with the element of surprise. It was a gamble, but the risk proved to be one worth taking. At least, in the short-term.

The town of Arras is built on chalk. Chalk that was heavily mined between the 16th -19th centuries to provide a material from which to construct the town buildings. As a result of the mining, huge caverns were left in the sub-stratum beneath the town. It was these caverns that would be used in the Spring Offensive to take the Germans by surprise, and who would extend them? The New Zealand Tunnelling Company, of course.

The men from the Tunnelling Company were rough, tough, and very hard workers. Some were recruited from the gold mines in places like Waihi, occasionally from the coal mines (though these workers were generally encouraged to stay in New Zealand as their work was valuable), and the majority were labourers from the railways and Public Works departments.  The tunnellers were hard men, used to rough lifestyles, and were known for having strong political opinions, often members of labour unions. It was said that they were hard to lead, that the men struggled with drill and regulations of soldiering. In March 1916, the New Zealand Tunnelling Company arrived in France.

At first, the men were involved in counter-mining, which involved digging close to German lines and trying to destroy German tunnels and trenches. In late 1916, they were sent a few miles south-west, to the town of Arras. There, the men undertook reconnaissance missions, which soon revealed that tunnels could be dug to link up the huge caverns. Over the next five months, they linked the existing systems and also created new tunnels. The new tunnels extended under no man’s land, close to German front lines, and the plan was to pack them full of men, who would race up to the surface, spill out through exits and take the Germans by surprise.

The Kiwis worked around the clock in long shifts, using mainly pickaxes as it was thought the noise of using explosives to break through the chalk would alert the Germans to the heavy activity. The strong New Zealand men tunnelled up to 100m per day, and in less than six months they had created two large tunnel networks.

They excavated galleries, foot subways, tramways for pulling trolleys (that usually carried ammunition or casualties), light railways, kitchens, hospitals, and even an operating theatre. The caves were given electricity within six weeks, and over time gas doors, an electrical ventilating plant, and running water were added. The eventual network was 20 kilometres long and was capable of housing 20,000 men.
The tunnel network was so extensive that one was able to become lost in it, and the tunnel systems were given place names so that the men could find their way around. One of the systems was given New Zealand names, from Russell at one end to Bluff at the other. To this day, Kiwi graffiti remains on the walls of the network, including a sign pointing to a small cave, ironically named Waitomo, sketches of women, and a ‘kia ora’ surrounded by ferns.

It was to the Wellington cavern (La carrière Wellingon) that we descended in September. We spent nearly half an hour walking a route through the quarry, looking at the very stone the Kiwi tunnellers had spent months living in. 

Archaeologists have recovered some of the equipment, clothing, and supplies that the men had down in the quarries. We could also see where the men had slept, and where they had performed their ablutions. It was an amazing experience to be able to walk through the very tunnels excavated by the Kiwis (with help from the British), and that had played such a key role in the Spring Offensive, otherwise known as The Battle of Arras. But, I hear you ask, how did it all end?

Early in April, the preliminary bombardment began. 24,000 men were packed into the caverns, and could hear the roar of artillery overhead. For eight days they waited. The night before D-Day was Easter Sunday. Deep in Wellington quarry, an altar was created, candles lit, and a chaplain led an Easter service. 

The next morning, at 5:30am, dynamite at the far ends of the tunnels was detonated. Thousands of men rushed down the tunnels, up the stairs, and through the newly created exits to the German front lines.

The first three days of the battle were an overwhelming success. The German frontline was pushed back 11km, and the Canadians seized the key point of Vimy Ridge. As usual, casualties were high and the initial gains turned to stalemate, so the operation was called off in May. Even though the operation did not achieve the desired breakthrough, new equipment was used and valuable techniques discovered that would come in handy for later battles.

The New Zealand Tunnelling Company moved on to general engineering tasks around the Arras region, including erecting the longest self-supporting bridge of the First World War. The Kiwi company was the first to arrive on the Western Front, and the last to leave, departing Arras in July 1918, and arriving in NZ in April 1919. Of the 446-strong company, 41 lost their lives. A remembrance plaque dedicated to the NZ tunnellers is erected at the Carrière Wellington (the museum above the tunnels), and a monument to the Kiwis was erected in 2007, on the site of the passive defence in Arras.

If you want to know more about the efforts of the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company, this website is lovely. It also has some great pictures.

(The title promises Amiens - we planned to visit this city, as it was the site of a battle in 1918 that helped bring an end to the war, but alas our camping-car was too big to fit down the city's historic streets. Also, we were very behind schedule, so we had to press on towards our next destination. Next time we're in France we promise to visit you, Amiens!)

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