The Wellington Quarry and Memorial of the Battle of Arras
The Wellington Quarry in Arras is a moving experience and one of the most impressive places to understand the horrors and futility of World War I. It's set in Arras, and shows the events around the Battle of Arras in 1916.
Background to the Battle of Arras
The battles of Verdun and the Somme in 1916 had been a disaster. So the Allied High Command decided to create a new offensive on the Vimy-Arras front in the north of France. Arras was strategic to the Allies and from 1916 to 1918, the town was under British command, unique in the history of World War I. Arras was a vital part of the new three-pronged attack, but at this stage of the war, Arras was a ghost town, continuously bombarded by German troops, smoking and in ruins, surrounded by the scars of World War I.
So it was decided to tunnel under Arras down in the chalk quarries that were originally dug out centuries before to provide building material. The plan was to construct a huge series of rooms and passages to hide 24,000 troops very near the German front lines in readiness for the new attack. The Wellington Quarry Museum tells the story of the quarrying, the lives of the townspeople and the troops, and the lead up to the battle of Arras on April 9th, 1917.
The 75-minute visit starts with a lift ride down into the quarries. Here a panorama of Arras as it burns puts the Allied plans in perspective. Then, following a bi-lingual expert who gives you more insights, and armed with an audioguide that turns on automatically as you approach the various pauses, you're led through the long twisting passages and huge caverns. Old films and long-forgotten voices are revealed in breaks in the tunnels, on small screens that disappear into the darkness. It feels as if the soldiers are actually there with you. “Each man had his own war”, a soldier says as you start to understand their daily lives, their fears and their nightmares.
The first task was to dig outthe huge spaces that became a primitive underground barracks. 500 New Zealand tunnelers, mostly Maori miners, helped by Yorkshire miners (called Bantams due to their height), dug 80 metres a day to construct two interlinking labrynths. The tunnelers gave the different sectors the names of their home towns. For the New Zealanders it was Wellington, Nelson and Blenheim. For the British, London, Liverpool and Manchester. The work took under six months and eventually the 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) accommodated 24,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers.You pass by piles of rusting tins, graffiti of names, drawings of loved ones back home and prayers, and hear the voices. “Bonjour Tommy” says a Frenchman against footage of civilians and soldiers chatting in the streets. “They do not hate the Germans. They do not insult the prisoners and are attentive to the wounded”, was the incredulous remark of a French journalist.
You hear letters written home, and poems from the great war poets like Wilfred Owen who lost his life just before the Armistice was signed, and by Siegfried Sassoon who wrote The General.“Good morning. Good morning” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.”
A chapel, power station, light railway, communications room, a hospital and a well were all created in the pale, flickering electric light. The walk past 20 pauses shows you in a very powerful way the life of the soldiers underground, their grim or flippant humour, and their camaraderie.
Then you come to the sloping passageways that led up to the light, and for many of the young soldiers (“too young” as one Frenchman said), up to their death. For a few days before, the artillery had been firing at the German lines. It was 5am, snowing and deadly cold on April 9th, Easter Monday, when the order was given to burst out of the quarries.
The story continues upstairs with a film about the Battle. The initial assault was highly successful. Vimy Ridge was captured by General Julian Byng's Canadian Corps, and the village of Monchy-le-Preux was taken. But for two days the Allied troops, on orders from above, held back. In that time the Germans, who had retreated initially, formed a new battle front, brought up reinforcements and started to reclaim the few kilometers the Allies had gained. For two months, the armies fought; 4,000 men lost their lives every day.
Practical InformationThe Wellington Quarry, Battle of Arras Memorial
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 51 26 95
Website (in English)
Entrance adult 6.80 euros, child under 18 years 3.10 euros
Open Daily 10am-12:30pm, 1:30-6pm
Closed Jan 1st, and three weeks after the Christmas holiday, June 28-30th, December 25th
Directions: The Wellington Quarry is in the middle of Arras.