Tunnelling at Arras

The tunnels created by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company in Arras, France were rediscovered in 1990. Until recently, the stories of the men who made them have largely gone untold. 

An imagined text message conversation between soldier and captain.

An imagined text message conversation between a soldier in the New Zealand Tunnelling Company and an army captain, both in France, 1916. Unidentified soldier (on left) by Herman John Schmidt, 1910s. Sir George Grey Special Collection. Auckland Libraries. 31-WPSCH18. Unidentified soldier (on right) by Allan Alexander Penman Mackenzie, 1916–1918. Masterton District Library and Archive. 541013.


The men in the New Zealand Tunnelling Company were recruited in 1915 and arrived in France in March 1916. Most were quarrymen, goldminers from Waihi and Karangahake, labourers, or coalminers from the West Coast of the South Island. The tunnellers joined underground quarries together quarries together to create a complex underground network that included kitchens, headquarters, and hospitals, along with facilities to house 20 000 men. Many locations in the tunnels were given New Zealand place names, with Russell at one end and Bluff at the other. In 1917, the tunnellers were given the dangerous job of digging tunnels beyond German lines in order to lay mines. The underground tunnel system was of major strategic importance to the Allies during the German offensive of 1918. The Tunnelling Company left Arras in July 1918. In the two years they spent in France, at least 41 tunnellers died and more than 150 were wounded. 

Key questions 

  • What can we observe? 
  • What do we already know? 
  • How might people view this conversation in different ways? 

Possible discussion questions 

  • What is this conversation about? 
  • What is the tone of the conversation? 
  • How might these messages have been communicated in 1916? 
  • Why was the New Zealand Tunnelling Company sent to Arras? 
  • What challenges do you think the men in the New Zealand Tunnelling Company faced while they were in France? 
  • Who were the Pioneers? 
  • How would you feel if you were the soldier in this conversation? Would you rather be the soldier or the captain? Why?
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