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History

The New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company (NZETC)

More than 120,000 New Zealanders enlisted to fight in the First World War a century ago, serving in memorable battles such as Gallipoli, Messines, Passchendale, or Le Quesnoy. Among them, a very special Company played a vital role and 1,308 men distinguished themselves by completing a difficult and ahighly secret mission.

This project aims to document, honour and preserve for future generations the story and incredible work of the men from the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company.

Formed in 1915, the Tunnellers were predominantly recruited from mining communities such as Waihi, Huntly, the West Coast, from the Railways and Public Works departments, and the NZ School of Mines based at University of Otago. The company was also supported by men of the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion.

The tunnels and caves

Engaged near Arras in Northern France, the New Zealand Engineers Tunneling Company initially conducted underground warfare and undermining of German trenches.

Later in November 1916, the company started work on locating and then connecting a series of abandoned underground chalk quarries. This created a large subterranean network, allowing soldiers to pass safely below ground from the town centre of Arras eastward to the front-line trenches.

The tunnel system included its own light rail system, kitchens, toilets, running water, electric lights – even its own hospital - and provided troops safe refuge from heavy German bombardment of the town and Allied positions. The complex was able to provide accommodation for up to 24,000 allied soldiers although it is assumed many more have passed through the tunnels in the lead up to the Battle of Arras in April 1917.

The tunnellers gave the Ronville system a taste of home, naming the main quarries after towns from New Zealand from Russell in the north down to Bluff in the south. At the same time this provided them with a means of understanding and navigating their way around below ground. Writings, some in Maori (including Pacific Island Māori) were commonplace on the tunnels’ walls and these remain today, giving further cultural significance to the structure.

The Museum – Carriere Wellington

For many years after the World Wars, the tunnels remained closed and largely forgotten. They were rediscovered in the 1990s and an underground museum built around the central Wellington quarry. The Carrière Wellington museum opened in 2008. It has welcomed nearly 200,000 visitors so far. From the museum, visitors can safely access the Wellington quarry.

More history

We found a lot of information about the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company at these websites.

You can find out more about the story of the NZ Tunnelling Company here.

The NZ Tunnelling Company Facebook page is a great avenue for updates and news about the men of the NZETC.

Historian Anthony Byledbad completed a remarkable doctoral research on the New Zealand Engineers Tunneling Company, and his website provides details of the men themselves.

This article is in French, but has very interesting information and photos – if your French is good enough!