Recruited in New Zealand in 1915, the men of the Tunnelling Company arrived in France in March 1916 under the command of 33-year-old regular soldier and Boer War veteran Major J.E. Duigan. The first New Zealanders to reach the Western Front, they were a so-called non-divisional unit – not part of the New Zealand Division, which arrived from Egypt the following month.
First NZEF fatality on the Western Front
Current research suggests that 4/1639 Sapper Michael Tobin was the first soldier in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to die on the Western Front. Tobin, a sapper in the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, fell ill with bronchial pneumonia shortly after arriving in France. He died on 15 April 1916 after being admitted to the British 42nd Casualty Clearing Station at Lucheux the day before. Read more
Most of the tunnellers were quarrymen, gold miners from Waihi and Karangahake, or labourers from the Railways and Public Works departments. Others were coal miners from the West Coast of the South Island, but these workers were generally discouraged from enlisting due to the essential nature of their industry. The hardbitten tunnellers gave Duigan some disciplinary headaches. He later grumbled that he had '17 ex-secretaries of Labour Unions in the Unit', as well as members of the 'Red' Federation of Labour. But with both the Allies and the Germans trying to tunnel under each other’s lines to lay mines, their experience was invaluable. At first, they were involved in successful efforts to foil German mining – known as counter-mining operations – just to the north-east of Arras.
In November 1916 the tunnellers moved to Arras itself. Over the next five months the New Zealanders extended the two existing underground systems and created new tunnels. They constructed a complex system of galleries, subways, kitchens, headquarters and hospitals – facilities capable of comfortably housing at least 12,000 men at any one time. To assist orientation, the locations in one of the systems were all given New Zealand place names, from Bluff at one extremity to Russell at the other (another tunnel system had British place names). Godley Avenue, named after the New Zealand Expeditionary Force commander, Sir Alexander Godley, linked the locations. The New Zealanders also left graffiti on the walls, including a large ‘Kia Ora’ flanked by ferns.
The men of the Tunnelling Company were not the only New Zealand troops involved in this work. For two months they were assisted by the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, many of whose members had been part of the Native (Maori) Contingent; this unit would eventually be renamed the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion. Later, infantrymen from the New Zealand Division also helped out.
With a major Allied push planned for April 1917, the tunnellers shifted to a more offensive role early in the year. They tunnelled towards the enemy lines from inside the cavern system and laid three mines under German trenches for detonation when the attack began. Tunnels were also driven to positions just short of the German trenches to assist communication as the attack developed. During the advance of 9 April the German line was pushed back 5 kilometres, and the Canadian Corps seized Vimy Ridge. As with most Western Front battles, this victory was achieved at a great cost in lives, with more than 3500 Canadians being killed and a further 7000 wounded.
Following the April 1917 offensive, the tunnellers were deployed on a number of tasks in the vicinity of Arras. The underground system they helped create would prove vital to the Allies during the German offensive of 1918. The Tunnelling Company finally left the Arras area in July 1918. By the end of the war they had suffered at least 62 deaths and many more non-fatal casualties in the course of their overseas service. The tunnels were closed after the Second World War and not rediscovered until 1990.