If you follow the D917 south out of Arras towards Bapaume, you soon find yourself passing through the district of Ronville which, once upon a time, consisted of just a few houses clinging to the side of the road. Today it is a sprawling suburb of the city, indistinguishable from so many other suburbs in so many other French cities.
However there’s a wall, barely visible from the road unless you know it’s there, that remembers the men of the 1st, 3rd & 5th British Armies who fought and fell during the Battle of Arras in April 1917.
And once you find the wall,…
…nearby there’s a bit of a giveaway about the other reason we’re here.
Down this ramp behind the wall, jump in the lift…
…and very shortly you are deep underground.
Sixty feet beneath the streets above and forgotten for centuries…
…the Boves of Arras are a series of underground caves, created in the Middle Ages by the quarrying of local stone to construct the town’s original buildings.
Old graffiti, but how old I know not?
Which is all very interesting, I hear you say,…
…but exactly what has that got to do with anything – at least anything within the scope of this website?
Which is a reasonable point,…
…and one which will become clear as we explore.
More graffiti, by the way.
There are miles and miles of tunnels down here, some very old,…
…some less so.
And here’s why.
Once the trench system had stabilised in late 1914, from the English Channel all the way to the Swiss border, the city of Arras found itself just behind the front lines and, as such, became an important communication and logistical centre for the British in this sector.
Unsurprisingly, over the ensuing months and years, German guns devastated much of the city, but underground, the British had rediscovered the network of caverns, quarries and tunnels, not just beneath the city streets themselves, but, in places, stretching considerably further afield. By the spring of 1917, following the debacle of the Somme the preceding year, the Allies were planning a major new offensive. The British would attack on the Arras front on 9th April, followed by the French a week later on the Aisne. At Arras, in the months preceding the battle, in the underground tunnels beneath and beyond the devastated city, there was much work to be done.
Once the old quarries had been thoroughly explored, the British set to work expanding them. Beyond the city limits the quarries extended quite some way to the south east, towards the front lines that, as the map below shows, were just a short distance away as they looped round the city.
This 1916 trench map shows the modern day entrance to the caves in orange. You can see how far beyond the city limits, and how close to the front lines Ronville was at the time.
There were two distinct quarry systems to the south east of Arras; the most northern of the two, the St. Sauveur Tunnel, was excavated by British troops, and the southern system, the one we are exploring, known as the Ronville Tunnel, or more colloquially the Wellington Quarry, by New Zealand engineers.
Note the bullet holes – target practise? I think so.
Everywhere you look, tunnels lead off into the darkness and, presumably, other caverns inaccessible to the public.
The Friends of the Surrey Infantry Museum, tin-hatted and ready for action – or lunch.
Essential sign No. 1.
Linking the old quarry workings together with new tunnels of their own, the New Zealand tunnellers (and the British tunnellers, working in the northern quarry system) created a haven where troops could rest and prepare for the forthcoming battle in complete safety from the German guns above.
Working at times eighteen hour shifts, they added some twelve miles of tunnels to the Ronville system, which by April 1917 was fully equipped with electric lighting (evidence of which still exists, above & below) powered by generators, kitchens, and even a hospital with an operating theatre.
A Royal Engineer sapper, finding himself in Arras for the first time on the opening day of the battle, was amazed to discover, on entering a dugout, that, “This dug-out was the entrance to a series of underground caves of great dimensions and to my further surprise I found them electrically lighted. It was absolutely the greatest surprise I had struck since my arrival in France. Here we were snugly quartered under the city while enemy shells were pounding it mercilessly. No sounds of battle permeated down here and the only discomfort was the water which dripped from the chalk roof continuously, making the floor very slippery. But we got our oil sheets out and made ourselves as comfortable as possible, smoking and chatting”.
The engineers not only began linking the underground chambers, but lengthening them further south east, even closer to the front lines, creating assault tunnels that stopped just a short distance from the German trenches.
When the time came the exits would be blown open with explosives, and thousands of troops would pour out on the unsuspecting Germans.
They constructed a light railway and a tramway, where hand-drawn trolleys could be used to take ammunition to the attacking troops and evacuate the wounded.
Water was available close to the exits.
You will have noticed both black (above) and red (below) writing on the walls of the caverns. The black writing is of Great War vintage, the red is from the Second World War, when the tunnels were again used, but this time as air raid shelters by the civilian population of the city. Note the carbon mark from a long extinguished candle to the left of the writing above.
More evidence of the electric lighting system that illuminated these caverns a hundred years ago.
This sign once said ‘To Arras’, but was, for some unknown reason, at some unknown time, partly erased. Security reasons, maybe?
Essential sign No.2.
It was dangerous work. The New Zealanders lost forty one men during the operation, and a further 151 were wounded by German counter-mining, but the Germans never discovered the extent of the tunnel systems, despite documented ‘spy hunts’ beneath ground, which, if nothing else, relieved the daily routine.
Many artefacts were left behind once the boves were no longer required.
Compare the photograph in this brochure with the bunk beds you can see in the background of the previous picture.
Hardly surprising when you consider that, by early April 1917, 24,000 troops were being housed down here, in preparation for the battle.
Note the sign pointing the way to Battalion Headquarters.
I have noticed that this map has been used on a number of websites without credit, so I’m going to use it too, and I hope nobody minds. It does illustrate the extent of the underground systems to the south east of Arras beautifully, as well as showing the extensive network of sewer and other tunnels beneath the city proper that the British also utilised. Unsurprisingly, the tunnellers named the caverns and tunnels after the places they called home. The St. Sauveur Tunnel system, worked by British tunnellers, includes names from Scotland, the north west of England, London & the Channel Islands; the New Zealanders working in the Ronville system did similar, naming the caverns after New Zealand cities.
Soldiers being soldiers, of course, many could not resist leaving reminders of their tenancy of the caves…
…some of which still remain…
…although tricky to photograph behind the mesh protection.
Caves are spooky, and peering into dark places…
…you never know what might happen. I’m sure you know your Wilfred Owen.
Tommy as caveman artist.
The preparations for battle that the troops underground underwent were extensive and detailed. On 7th April, two days before the attack, the 4th Bn. Royal Fusiliers practised almost their complete role in the coming offensive, timing every aspect, from leaving the caves and cellars where they were billeted, to entering the tunnels, passing through the Auckland system (see map), before reaching Exit 5, from where they would pass into Circular Trench (below), their designated assembly point.
Directions to No. 10 exit,…
…one of the exits used by the attacking troops (also leading out to Circular Trench)…
…as they left the sanctuary of the underground caverns…
…and made their way up these steps to face the German machine guns above.
Back on the surface, time to take a closer look at the Battle of Arras Memorial (not to be confused with the Arras Memorial, an entirely different, and far larger, memorial that I will show you in due course).
The Battle of Arras – or more precisely the Second Battle of Arras, the first having taken place over four days at the start of October 1914, as the French attempted to outflank the Germans during the race to the sea – would be fought along a twenty three mile front, from Vimy Ridge to the north to Bullecourt in the south.
Learning from the lessons of the early days on the Somme, the British would employ new tactics, not least the use of a creeping barrage on the day of the attack, with assaulting troops advancing in open formation behind the artillery bombardment as the shellfire slowly moved towards and across the German lines.
What was similar to the Somme was the artillery barrage that would precede the offensive. For four days prior to the start of the battle, longer at Vimy Ridge, well over two and a half million shells, over a million more than were fired before the Battle of the Somme the preceding year, would be directed at the German trenches and rear area.
And the first day proved a spectacularly successful one for the British; the German trenches had been smashed to pieces and a combination of a five minute hurricane artillery bombardment just before zero hour and the weather – it was snowing – meant that many of the German defenders were taken by surprise. The Canadians pushed the Germans off the Vimy Ridge to the north, and all along this sector of the front the British gained ground for what were deemed to be acceptable casualties.
Following these early advances, however, the attack bogged down, and, as April turned to May, and the stalemate continued, the offensive was eventually halted. The British had suffered some 150,000 casualties and, apart from some important strategic gains, not least the capture of the Vimy Ridge, on the first day, little further ground had been taken. German losses totalled something in the region of 125,000.
The whys and wherefores of the battle are not for us to discuss here (Ludendorff would later comment, “No doubt exceedingly important strategic objects lay behind the British attack, but I have never been able to discover what they were”), but there is no doubt that the surprise factor of thousands of troops rising apparition-like from the ground through the swirling snow in front of the Germans, already benumbed from the artillery bombardment and creeping barrage, played a key part in the first day’s successes.
Now, I know I promised you recently that we were heading back to Flanders, and indeed we are. It’s just that we are stopping in Arras for a few posts on the way. And hopefully, having read this one, you’ll find them of interest.