More background info:
Arras, now the capital of the Pas-de-Calais region in north-eastern France, is an ancient place with history in spades, but it features here because of its role in World War One
, in particular the Second Battle of Arras of April/May 1917
. This was part of a larger Anglo-French offensive with the aim of breaking through the German lines. The Battle of Arras was conducted by British and Commonwealth troops, and part of it was also the Battle of Vimy Ridge
. The Battle of Arras was mostly intended as a diversion from the French offensive further south-east in the Battle of the Aisne, especially along the Chemin des Dames ridge.
In the end, despite significant territorial gains made, the deepest advance since the beginning of trench warfare (cf. Yser
), the ultimate goal of a breakthrough in order to fight the outnumbered Germans in the open field in a war of movement, was not achieved. So at the bitter cost of some 150,000+ casualties (and a similar number on the German side), the end result was, yet again, continued stalemate, even though most historians count the Battle of Arras as a British/Commonwealth victory. Yet it had little impact on the outcome of the war.
In preparation for the battle, the British made use of the rediscovered quarries deep underneath Arras. The quarries were already big enough to house thousands of troops. But new tunnels and connecting tunnels were dug from mid-1916, in particular by the 500-strong New Zealand Tunnelling Company. This explains why the section now open to the public bears the same name as New Zealand
’s capital city. It was common practice to name tunnel sections after familiar places (there were also tunnels named Auckland, Christchurch
and Dunedin, for instance). In general, going underground, to be safe from constant above-ground shelling, had become very common in this war (see also Vimy Ridge
, Hill 60
, Passchendaele 1917 Museum
and Lochnagar Crater
). At Arras over 20 km of tunnels were dug, with exits right in front of the German lines.
Now capable of housing well over 20,000 soldiers, the tunnel systems underneath Arras were used to assemble the troops and prepare them for battle. The tunnels were equipped with electricity, running water and had storage space for all manner of gear and supplies, and of course provided sleeping and living quarters for the soldiers. When the day of the start of the battle came, early in the morning of 9 April, the soldiers departed the tunnels/quarries through “No. 10 exit” to the battlefield. Parts of the tunnels were also equipped as field hospitals into which those wounded in the battle could be evacuated.
The tunnels were opened up again used as air-raid shelters in WWII
, but were sealed in 1945 and more or less forgotten over the passing decades until they were rediscovered in 1990. One section was then slowly restored and made safe (while most of the remainder of the tunnel system has either collapsed or is too unstable to be visited). The site first opened its doors in 2008.
What there is to see:
Outside the entrance is a small park with a memorial wall on which all regiments that took part in the Battle of Arras are listed. Since the centenary of the Battle in 2017, a second memorial wall honouring the New Zealand Tunnellers specifically (see above
) and a statue of a tunneller were added.
Inside the visitor centre is where you can sign up for the next available tour (I had to come back the next morning as the last tours the day before were already fully booked – so better be a bit flexible, or book ahead online!) and pay for your ticket. Maximum numbers of participants in the tours of the underground are limited to between 15 and 20 (different sources state varying figures).
Also in the above-ground visitor centre is a small exhibition about the Battle of Arras and in particular the tunnelling operations. You can either see it while waiting for your tour to commence, or leave it for afterwards (or both).
At the start of the tour you are given a British “Tommy” steel helmet to act as a hard hat, as well as, if required, an audio guide in the language of your choice.
Then the group is led to the lift that takes you down the 22 metres to the quarry floor level. Down there the tour proceeds along level wooden walkways that have been constructed (so that wheelchair users can also participate). The tour is a mix of the guide/audio-guide’s narration and stops at screens where some projections are played. Original features in the quarries are pointed out, such as the electric cables running along the ceiling level of the tunnels, caches of pickaxes or the tunneller’s trolley on a narrow-gauge railway track.
Painted on to the walls are signpostings to various parts of the underground system, including HQ and latrines. The most significant one would have to be the one marking “No. 10 exit”, the one through which the soldiers emerged from here on to the battlefields at 5.30 a.m. on 9 April 1917 (see above
). You can see up the stairs into the dark and imagine how different an atmosphere it must have been back then …
Also intriguing are the little doodles of female figures found on some walls, or the displays of items discovered in the quarry tunnels after the war, such as bottles and rusty tins of food with some of the labels still decipherable.
Back in the exhibition above ground more such items can be seen, now from both sides, so also including German field provisions, documents, packets of tobacco and so on. Some bilingual (French and English) text panels provide background information about the Battle of Arras and its context. In addition, a short film is screened.
All in all
, this is a rather unusual attraction in the WW1
category in that it goes so far underground (but see also Vimy
) and has great place authenticity. The displays of artefacts may not be as rich as in some other museums, but they do complement the guided tour through the underground tunnels well. Recommended.
off Rue Arthur Delétoille in the south of Arras, Pas-de-Calais, France
Access and costs: by guided tour only, best pre-booked; not too expensive.
Arras itself is well connected by road and rail, with regular TGV high-speed train services to Paris
(taking only 45-50 minutes, as opposed to the good two hours you’d need to drive the same distance in a car). Wellington Quarry, or “Carrière Wellington” in French, is a ca. 15-minute walk from the train station, turning left outside the station building and heading south-west along Rue du Docteur Brassart, then turn left again and take the bridge across the train line and head south along Avenue Fernand Lobbedez until you come to the road also named Carrière Wellington on the left.
Opening Times: daily from 10 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and 1.30 to 6 p.m., closed at Christmas and for the first four weeks after the Christmas period.
Admission (in 2017): 7 EUR
Audio guides are available in English, French, German and Dutch.
Time required: The guided tours last about an hour, so for also watching the 10-minute film and going through the small exhibition in the visitor centre, you have to factor in about an hour and a half to two hours in total.
To the south of Arras is The Somme
, one of the most significant WW1 battlefield areas, featuring numerous memorials, war cemeteries and museums.
Not related to WW1 but to WWII
and only about an hour’s drive from Arras to the north-west is La Coupole
, a former V2
base and now one of the premier dark museums in north-eastern France
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Arras lay in ruins after WW1
(much like Ypres
), but the town hall, its tower and the historic facades of the houses surrounding the main squares in the centre (Grand Place and Place des Héros) were faithfully restored and now form a convincing pseudo-ancient ensemble well worth a look.
See also under France
- Arras 01 - memorial wall
- Arras 02 - outside the Wellington quarry
- Arras 03 - inside the quarry
- Arras 04 - old cables
- Arras 05 - walkways
- Arras 06 - projection
- Arras 07 - artefacts
- Arras 08 - writings on the wall
- Arras 09 - newer wall writings
- Arras 10 - dreamy doodles
- Arras 11 - more tunnels branching off
- Arras 12 - looking up
- Arras 12a - No 10 exit
- Arras 13 - exhibition part overground
- Arras 14 - exhibits
- Arras 15 - city centre
- Arras 16 - all reconstructed
- Arras 17 - city hall