On the front

From May 1917 to mid-July 1918, the tunnellers made various digging works beneath the trenches on the front line[1]. The underground warfare which took place beneath the no man's land had ended for the New Zealanders with the beginning of the Battle of Arras in April 1917. Henceforth, the tunnellers arranged an underground life beneath the trenches with the creation of dugouts, machine gun nests, trench mortar emplacements and observation posts; a significant part of the work of all the British tunnellers during the conflict.

Following the Battle of Arras, the British troops fixed a new position at the east of the village of Monchy-le-Preux[2]. Trenches had to be entirely dug and developed. The Company area extended from the Arras-Cambrai road to about 500yds to the north of the Scarpe river, approximately six square miles. The tunnellers began to dig more comfortable billets for the troops than the first shelters opened in the parapet of the trenches by the infantrymen themselves, since August 1915, to protect them from the coming winter time.

The activity of the tunnellers was subjected to the hazards of the war. Three shifts, each consisting of a non-commissioned officer and four sappers worked night and day[3]. They were assisted by the infantrymen who participated in the digging of their own accommodations. Every day, the same rite was repeated. Each section of the Company worked in a precise area of the front line.

The tunnellers were too far from Arras to stay in their billets in town. They established advanced billets in an underground quarry beneath the ruins of an old farm on the road to Cambrai[4]. Nevertheless, all the men were not used on the front line. Some of them were engaged in preparing the necessary equipment, in particular the essential wooden planks to fit out the subterranean accommodations.

In early September 1917, the tunnellers built their own sawmill around the Arras railway station in the Ronville neighbourhood[5]. The wooden planks were stored by hundreds near the tracks and sent in small trucks on the front. Received near the trenches, they were then used in the wide range of underground works.

The Sawmill in Arras

Photographed by Henry Armytage Sanders

Album 419 H351, Auckland War Memorial Museum

Digging underground

The location of the underground works was of first importance. A work had to be as close as possible to a road or a communication route to allow the tunnellers to forward tools and equipments. The study beforehand of the ground supplied the best area of digging. The geology of white chalk is particularly favorable to the underground works around Arras. It offers a quasi-natural protection a few feet away under the surface, generally between 20 and 26ft[6].

Before the beginning of their works, the tunnellers should have to prepare the trench. The parapet was first squared down and then sufficient excavation made to allow the insertion of four vertical box sets forming a rectangular opening 6ft 3in height and 3ft 6in wide[7]. The sets formed a sort of solid timber box leading forward and downward acting as steps. A corridor was constructed at the bottom of the stairs that linked various rooms of the dugout.

Although underground shelters were used as rescue posts, section or company headquarters, they remained widely dominated by their aspect of accommodation of the troops. A dug-out was for the smallest a space around 9ft wide and 30ft long, in which 24 men could live[8]. The infantrymen appreciated this modest space, felt as a haven of peace at the heart of the battlefield. They quickly adopted a reassuring subterranean life.

All the soldiers were not treated similarly. The dug-outs of the others ranks looked like more than a dormitory with bunk beds and constant humidity. In contrast, the officers were far better provided; some of their dug-outs containing single rooms, sometimes furnished with electricity and luxury furnitures as a wrought iron bed or a small washbasin for the daily ablutions: a truly “house with all modern conveniences”[9]. For all, this small underground space became an essential element of life at the front.

Mining a road in Etrun

Photographed by Henry Armytage Sanders

Album 419 H778, Auckland War Memorial Museum

Between surface and underground

After 8 hours underground, relieved shifts returned to surface. The men were exhausted by digging the chalk. A little comfort awaited them in their advanced billets in Les Fosses Farm: a ration of rum, a hot snack and an old bed[10]. After 9 days in the trenches, the tunnellers were entitled to 3 days in the Company camp at Arras to wash and rest[11].

Three rest days were necessary for the men. During this time, they breathed a fresher and clearer air than during their underground construction. Inside their works beneath the trenches, the tunnellers breathed the smoke of the candles, a bad air and a special underground atmosphere which could cause respiratory problems.

The New Zealanders worked underground until March 1918, creating more than 200 dug-outs. The big German offensive on 21 March 1918 ended the work of the tunnellers and pushed back the British front line[12]. The Germans advance finally stopped just 1100yds to the east of Arras. The tunnellers were now focused on digging new trenches at the Arras front. Houses on the main streets of Arras were connected and strengthened to be used as bunkers. Everybody was engaged in the defence of Arras[13].

The Germans failed to capture Arras. The front line stabilized again in front of the town. The tunnellers prepared new machine gun nests and dugouts on the whole Arras trenches. Digging works increased considerably: 89 new dug-outs, machine gun nests and trench mortar emplacements were begun solely in the month of June 1918[14].

The Company stayed in Arras until 15 July 1918 and was then transferred to the Marieux sector, near Doullens, bordering the Pas-de-Calais and the Somme area. Many positive reports, congratulating their work in Arras were received from both British and New Zealand High Command[15]. Even after the Company departed Arras, the tunnellers mission stayed the same: always digging.