Images from the Wellington Tunnels, Arras, France
Images from the Wellington Tunnels, Arras, France Gail Forrer

ANZAC 2017: Gail Forrer reports from Arras, France

FROM a series of freezing cold underground rock tunnels, painstakingly enlarged by New Zealand soldiers the largest surprise attack in World War 1 was launched. These tunnels, this underground town, would become known as The Wellington Tunnels.

As far back as the ninth century, builders were quarrying to depths of 12 metres for their materials and in the process creating vaults for storage, and, if in need, shelter in the northern France country town of Arras. The result was a series of (still used) dead end tunnels.

The First World War changed all of that when a plan was made and carried out to link all these tunnels and enlarge them to fit in 20,000 men.

The quarries would place the allies within metres of the enemy line. The underground quarry network included a hospital capable of holding up to 700 patients.

It was equipped by all of the services required by medical personnel, mainly waiting rooms from which the injured soldiers could be allocated, an operating theatre, rest areas for the stretcher bearers, reserves and a morgue. The whole hospital had electric lighting.

Today, the Wellington Tunnels are maintained as a memorial to the Battle of Arras, and you can take a tour through this extraordinary place and see, feel and honour the history that was made there.

This week I walked through this extraordinary place and sensed the lives of these young men who, mostly, lost their lives or were forever changed by the awful experience.

Yes, this is an area of tunnels, but within these tunnels are cave like rooms, cold, damp, dripping moisture and depressing.

I saw where they slept, ate and played cards. Where they sketched the faces of their loved ones in the rocks and the signs that led upwards to the trenches.

For many men, this was where they spent the last eight days of their lives.

Above ground, the surprise attack worked. But below ground, the words on the rock ceiling stayed with me.

"I am the enemy you killed, my friend."*

*Gail Forrer is a guest of Stonestreet Travel and is attending their Northern France Battlefield tour.

An old image on display in the tunnels shows where the soldiers slept.
An old image on display in the tunnels shows where the soldiers slept. Gail Forrer

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