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The underground war

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The underground war

The New Zealand Tunnelling Company were the first New Zealanders to arrive at the Western Front - in March 1916.

The night shift of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company in their bunks below the ground.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB-419-H355.

Men from the mines

In October 1915, the New Zealand Government received a request to form a tunnelling company. Men were recruited from gold mines in Waihi and Karangahake and coal mines on the West Coast. Other members were engineers and labourers from the Railways and Pubic Works Departments.

After military training in Avondale, the tunnellers left Auckland on 18 December 1915 aboard the Ruapehu. They disembarked on the south coast of England for more training - this time under British instructors. The tunnellers quickly gained a reputation for toughness.  

Going underground

The New Zealanders were based in a row of semi-circular barrack buildings in Dainville, France, not far from the city of Arras, an area traditionally known for chalk mining. 

With fighting at a virtual standstill, both sides resorted to a century-old military technique - dig under key enemy locations and blow them up.​ Allied forces hoped the operation would provide the strategic break-through they needed to bring to an end the stalemate at the Western Front.

The New Zealand Tunnelling Company were recruited to join French and British tunnellers tasked with a series of preparatory actions ahead of the main offensive. Work quickly began on a network of tunnels under Arras to aid troop and supply movements.

The 'New Zealand way'

The New Zealand Tunnelling Company was joined in Arras by the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, and later infantrymen. The New Zealanders' tunnels were larger than those dug by the French and British tunnellers, and they used different methods of support. The New Zealanders were known for the speed of their digging - a crucial factor in the underground war. 

"Tunnellers would dig a tunnel under the enemy trench system and carve out a cave at the end of the tunnel. They would then pack the cave with about 3000 pounds of explosives, retreat and detonate it. When an explosion of this size went off underground, everyone in nearby tunnels, even unconnected to the explosion, was killed by carbon monoxide created by the blast."
Baker Wilson and Wilson.

Counter attacks were nerve wracking. The tunnellers were able to hear the Germans digging underground - and the sound of explosives being packed. The New Zealanders had to immediately stop digging and be first to set off their explosives. 

New Zealand Tunnelling Company destroyed a huge quantity of damaged German shells and land mines, 1917.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB-419-H353.

The bridge reportedly built in eight days by New Zealand tunnellers.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-RESOS-133.

The tunnels under Arras were a complex network of supply routes, housing for troops and even a hospital. There was an electricity supply and running water. 

Many of the tunnels were named after New Zealand locations - such as Christchurch, Blenheim and Nelson - names necessary to negotiate the underground maze.

The tunnellers moved above ground after the Arras attack, building roads and a bridge. The construction of the Havrincourt Bridge over the Canal du Nord was an impressive feat considering its proximity to the front line, scarcity of materials and the fact that the company were not specialised bridge builders. 

New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey and Deputy Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward addressed the New Zealand Tunnellers in Arras as part of their official tour in 1918.

The Ministerial Party addressing the New Zealand Tunnelling Company in 1918.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB-419-H753.

Back home and underground

It wasn't until April 1919 that the tunnellers arrived home - the last New Zealand unit to return. Many went back to their previous coal and goldmining jobs, the underground tunnels a constant reminder of the horrors of war.

Their contribution to the First World War was largely unrecognised until the Arras Tunnel was opened in Wellington in 2014. It was named to honour the wartime efforts of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company.​

Further reading

Baker Wilson, S. and Wilson, K. 'Miners at War'. The New Zealand Tunnelling Company.

'What New Zealanders left behind in Arras'. New Zealand WW100.

Journey to Arras. A five-part documentary. NZ On Screen.

Cite this article

Auckland Museum. The underground war. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 10 March 2016. Updated: 27 March 2016.

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