The New Zealand Tunnellers on the Arras Front (May 1917-July 1918)

Accomodate the soldiers :
The New Zealand Tunnellers on the Arras Front (May 1917-July 1918)

By Anthony Byledbal, Doctoral Student at the University of Artois, Arras

 From May 1917 to mid-July 1918, the NZ Tunnellers who worked on the Arras’ underground quarries connection made various works beneath the trenches. With the beginning of the Battle of Arras in April 1917, the underground war ended for the unit. Henceforth, the New Zealanders constructed dugouts, machine gun nests and trench mortar emplacements, a significant part of the tunnellers work in the conflict.The company area extended from the Arras - Cambrai road to about 450 meters north of the River Scarpe, approximately 10 square kilometres.


View of  a dugout built in the chalk beneath the trenches.
(Design and creation : Anthony Byledbal).


Before beginning works, the Tunnellers would prepare the trench. The entrance is formed with 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. Inside a dugout under construction, the air was unbearable to the point that was difficult to keep candles lit. Men could not stay very long in this heavy atmosphere. The Tunnellers would create ventilation system in order to make their stay underground more comfortable. The spoil was the Tunnellers major problem. It needed to be lifted to the surface. Some Sappers worked underground filling the bags with spoil. Attached infantrymen, employed as labour, helped the New Zealanders to bring up the bags. They positioned to create a human chain and thus passed the bags from hand to hand till it reached the trench. The rubble’s bags were then stored in the trenches or shell holes during the day and removed under cover of darkness.

The NZ Tunnellers worked underground until March 1918. The German offensive of 21st March 1918 pushed the British back. The Germans advance finally stopped just one kilometres east of Arras. The Tunnellers were now taken from their underground work to focus on digging new trenches in the Arras front. The Germans failed to capture Arras. The front stabilized in front of the town. The Tunnellers prepared new machine gun nests and dugouts on the whole Arras front line.


The New-Zealand Tunnellers in their dugout at "Les Fosses Farm" near Monchy le Preux.
(ID:1/2-012990-G, Royal  New Zealand Returned and Services'Association, Alexander Turnhull Library, Wellington, New Zealand)


For more informations, visit the New Zealand Tunnellers Website :