The Underground City of Arras, France. Wellington Tunnels

I had been floundering around in Paris for a fortnight or so, after my lengthily planned journey back home from London had got off to a terrible start. For the beginning of my journey I should have been sipping on mint tea in Marrakech, dining in Rick’s Café in Casablanca, and by now feasting on squid sandwich in Madrid, but a series of unconnected and unforeseen circumstances now led me to France. Perhaps a little depressed at the outset, I wasn’t feeling so down soon enough in Paris. No, I was just biding my time, waiting it out a little until the scale of time and my bank account became a little more balanced. Camping in my dear friend Loren’s loft in Montreuil, in Paris’ east, the first days spent trudging around, sight seeing in the rain, spending as little money as possible but always repenting to a hot chicken and baguette (€4), enough to fill the belly. In the evenings washing dishes and slicing cheese and vegetables at his restaurant in the city, completed with a hefty reward of a delicious burger and a pint or two. It was not so bad at all.

It can never be said that you have seen enough of Paris, but now as my final pay cheque from England came through, and a little bit of luck in the form of cancelled flights I couldn’t have made in Spain were refunded, it was time for a little more exploration of northern France. On an earlier visit to France I had learned of the city of Arras, and its special connection to New Zealand, specifically to the New Zealand Tunneling Company, which played a critical role under the city during the First World War, an extensive quarry network that can now be visited today.

The Wellington Quarry – la Carrière Wellington was opened in 2008, carefully created in a section of the many miles of tunnels dug by the New Zealand Tunneling Company, particularly the Ronville and Saint-Saveur districts of Arras. Predominantly Maori and Pacific Island miners, coal miners from the South Islands West Coast, gold miners from Waihi and labourers from the Railways and Public Works departments. Generally discouraged from enlisting due to the essential nature of their industry in New Zealand, now they found themselves in the thick of helping to win a crucial battle. They arrived in France under the command of a 33 year old Boer War veteran: Major John Duigan, who had once complained that his life was not made any easier by the fact that he had seventeen Trade Union secretaries within his unit, discipline appears to have been optional.



Arras

Inside the tunnels

Arras

Arras

Arras



They worked the tunnels to link up with original quarries dating back to the middle ages beneath the city. The Kiwi tunnelers fitting running water and electricity down below in their new dwellings, a large hospital in the labyrinth, able to fit 700 beds. Signposted throughout the tunnels, directions to other parts of the extensive quarry, all given New Zealand place names. Still scattered throughout the network of tunnels are artifacts left by the soldiers, mining trucks, food containers, glass bottles, rum jars, helmets, and bullets all perfectly preserved, as well numerous example of drawings and graffiti chiseled into the chalk walls; the name of a town in New Zealand, a sign reading “Wanted, housekeeper”, humor still not lost on the Kiwi trooper.

My broad Kiwi accent had given me away when I walked in to the museum, and so for the guided tour I was given special attention, the brilliant guide highlighting obscure New Zealand themed markings in the wall, predominantly Maori places names throughout. Entering the ancient quarry, it is difficult to imagine 24,000 British and Dominion soldiers preparing to emerge into the German lines, one of the most renowned surprise attacks during of the First World War. Projected onto the chalk walls, black and white photos flicker and through headsets stories are narrated of the destruction of Arras, Its central and strategic position on the Western Front meant that three quarters of the city was destroyed. There is a somber moment to reflect as you reach the steps that took these soldiers out of the tunnel network. It is difficult to imagine the feeling the troops must have had. The Battle of Arras took place between 9th April and 16th May 1917, and although there was initial success for Britain and the Dominions, it became a bloody disaster with almost 160,000 Commonwealth and 125,000 German casualties, la Carrière Wellington is a touching and impressive tribute to what took place here.

Leaving the museum my French guide directed me a little further down the road, to a monument erected in 2007 from flint stone out of the Wellington Tunnels, it beautifully commemorates the role the New Zealand Tunneling Company played here, and touchingly so how much Arras is still thankful today, with flags flying in the city paying thanks to those diggers who had worked and toiled a century ago. As it is said of the ANZACS in France,

Ce fut une generation couraguese.

They were a gallant generation.

The Wellington Quarry (La Carrière Wellington) is open daily from Daily 10.00am to 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 6.00pm and will cost you €7.

Traveling to Arras

Arras is a located 179 km north of Paris. Flights to Paris are easy and cheap to book via CheapAir. CheapAir accept Bitcoin Cash for a fast and reliable payment, alternatively you can pay with most major credit cards.

Arras is easily accessible by car or rail, trains departing hourly from Paris. I recommend hiring a car from Paris to Arras in order to maximize your activity time once you arrive in Arras. Book an economy vehicle from $13 per day from CheapAir

Arras accommodation

When you plan your Arras historical journey you’ll find 10 hotels and other accommodation lodgings available from CheapAir starting from $33 per night for a single adventurer.

Arras climate

July and August are the hottest months in Arras with an average temperature of 72°F (22.2°C). February and January are generally the coldest, averaging 34°F (1.1°C).

Other sights to see and do in Arras

Once you arrive in Arras make sure to add the historic sites and monuments of Grand Place, Place des Heros, and Notre Dame Cathedral to your itinerary.



Arras

Notre Dame Cathedral

Arras

Arras War Cemetery

Arras

Grand’ Place

Arras

Place des Heros



Best value

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