Tunnel vision in French underground

The war memorial at Vimy, France

ARRAS, in the Pas-de-Calais, has the rat as its symbol. Grain stored there in medieval times attracted the rodents and, perhaps, ‘un rat’ was a pun on the city’s name.

Nowadays, however, the final ‘s’ in ‘Arras’ is pronounced. Photographs taken during the Great War show a totally devastated townscape; rats must have thrived there as they did in the nearby trenches.

The pulverised squares of Arras have been magnificently restored. The place in now an architectural gem, boasting two UNESCO World Heritage listings; the ornate belfry and the huge Citadelle, created by Louis XIV’s military architect, Vaubon. Maximilian de Robespierre is the town’s most famous son.

You could argue the rat, spending most of its life underground, is a fitting symbol for Arras. There are tunnels, known as ‘boves’, under the city where limestone was quarried to provide stone for buildings. Some date to the 12th Century.

During the Great War, Arras was on the front line. In March 1916, Maori coal miners, and Yorkshiremen not tall enough for the army, began digging out the ancient tunnels and connecting the underground chambers together. The subterranean town they created was called ‘La Carrière Wellington’, after New Zealand’s capital.

Four teams of 500 worked day and night. One 200m stretch, 2m wide and as high as a man was created in less than three days. Water pipes and trolly-rails were laid. A primitive electricity generator provided lighting. A hospital with operating theatres had 700 beds. The metropolis stretched for 20km.

In the eight weeks prior to the notorious Battle of Arras, 24,000 troops lived underground in damp dark squalor, undetected by the enemy 20m above them. Conditions were rough. Water was reused for washing; 12 men to a basin. The last to wash had an advantage; the icy cold water had been warmed by his predecessors. Buckets provided the only sanitation.

In the early hours of April 9, 1917, British Canadian and Australian soldiers burst out into no-mans-land and the fateful battle began. To get out more quickly through the narrow ‘Exit No. 10’, the troops had to leave their great-coats behind. It was snowing outside; freezing cold added to the horror.

It’s said, of the Great War, that ‘lions were led by asses’. Creating Wellington Quarry, however, was a stroke of genius. The generals sought to break through the lines of trenches and attack the German forces from open country to the rear. The plan almost succeeded; several German trenches were overrun on the first day. Some soldiers walked unchallenged, even smoking, to the German trenches to find their astonished enemies rising half-dressed and bootless from their beds. At other positions, however, whole companies were mown down by machine gunners.

Then the generals made a fatal mistake; they halted the assault after two days to allow the troops to regroup. This gave the Germans time to get their act together and hold the line. Had the British pressed on, German officers concluded, the attack would have succeeded. There were 160,000 allied casualties and 125,000 German ones.

Wellington Quarry is now a museum. Visitors are guided through a section of the tunnels where utensils, old food tins, and bunk-beds, give a vivid impression of life in this hell-hole. Film footage, taken during the war, is screened at strategic points and sound recordings played. There are poignant drawings on walls.

The 75 minute visit is a sobering experience but one no visitor to beautiful Arras should miss.

* For information on visiting Arras, (nearby Lille is an hour and 20 minutes from London on the Eurostar), see www.explorearras.com and www.rendezvousenfrance.com


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