arras tunnel during park construction

Arras Tunnel, under Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, during the construction of the park in 2015. Credit: Photograph by Andy Palmer, Manatū Taonga

Arras Tunnel, which passes under Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, was opened to traffic on 29 September 2014.

Scattered along both walls of the tunnel are 273 decorative red poppies, a symbol of remembrance. The poppies become more densely packed as you pass the National War Memorial, reminding people that they are passing through a significant commemorative space.

Why is it called Arras Tunnel?

Arras Tunnel was named to honour the wartime efforts of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company in the French town of Arras during the First World War.

Arras lay close to the front line for most of the war and, despite suffering extensive damage from bombardment, it remained a key Allied stronghold because of one major advantage – it was built on chalk. Large underground caverns beneath the town, remnants of mining activity 200 years earlier, provided an ideal environment for housing troops and supplies.

The New Zealand Tunnelling Company

The New Zealand Tunnelling Company were the first New Zealanders to reach the Western Front. The company was formed in 1915 from quarrymen, gold miners from Hauraki, labourers from the Railways and Public Works departments and West Coast coal miners. They arrived in France in March 1916 under the command of 33-year-old regular soldier and South African War veteran Major John Evelyn Duigan.

Initially the company was involved in successful ‘counter-mining’ efforts just to the north-east of Arras, which involved tunnelling to identify and destroy the tunnels the Germans were mining towards the Allied front line.

A town beneath a town

In November 1916 the tunnellers moved to Arras itself. Over the following five months they completed two vast quarry and tunnel networks, running from the centre of Arras to near the German front line.

The complex system consisted of facilities capable of housing 20,000 people, including galleries, subways, kitchens, headquarters and a hospital (with operating theatres and a mortuary). The tunnels were fitted out with running water, electric lights and a light-rail system.

In all the tunnellers dug 4.3 kilometres of tunnels. The work was carried out 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with individual tunnellers doing eight-hour shifts followed by 24 hours rest.

Other New Zealand troops were intermittently involved in this work, including members of the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, many of whom had been part of the Native (Māori) Contingent. Later, infantrymen from the New Zealand Division also helped out.

part of the arras tunnels labelled christchurch

One of the Arras tunnels named after New Zealand cities, in this case Christchurch.

Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library. Reference: 1/2-013758-G, Photograph by Henry Armytage Sanders. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

New Zealand place names in France

To help the tunnellers find their way underground, the locations in one of the systems were all given New Zealand place names, from Bluff at one extremity to Russell at the other. Godley Avenue, named after the New Zealand Expeditionary Force commander, Sir Alexander Godley, linked the locations. Another tunnel system was given British place names.

The New Zealanders also left graffiti on the walls, including a large ‘Kia Ora’ (a Māori greeting) flanked by ferns.

Allied offensive

With a major Allied push planned for April 1917, the tunnellers shifted to a more offensive role. Following an attack on 9 April, the German line was pushed back 11 kilometres, and Canadian troops captured Vimy Ridge.

The underground system New Zealand tunnellers helped create would also prove vital to the Allies during the German offensive of 1918.

Leaving Arras

The Tunnelling Company finally left the Arras area in July 1918, having suffered at least 41 deaths and 151 injuries during more than two years of service. The company was the last New Zealand Expeditionary Force unit to return to New Zealand, arriving home on 24 April 1919.

The tunnels today

The tunnels beneath Arras were closed after the Second World War and not rediscovered until 1990. They are one of the few physical traces left behind by the New Zealanders on the Western Front.

The Wellington cavern now houses an underground museum and memorial: La Carrière Wellington, Mémorial de la Bataille d’Arras.

Further information

Updated on 19th October 2017