Screaming and gunfire
When the doors closed behind us we knew we were in for an unforgettable experience. We could hear screaming and gunfire accompanied by images of horror flashing in front of our eyes. Then the lights came on and we were herded into the elevator. As we descended farther and farther, it got colder and colder. When the doors opened again we were 20 meters underground, below the city of Arras in the Wellington Quarry.
Under the feet of German soldiers
During WWI, over 20 000 British and allied soldiers gathered in this chalk quarry, hiding literally under the feet of the German troops. Their plan was to emerge a few meters from the German lines on the morning of April 9th, 1917 in what would turn out to be history’s greatest surprise attack. An incredible effort and feat of human ability, soldiers from New Zealand tunneled and dug out what could only be described as an underground city. Using old quarries as their starting point, interconnecting tunnels were dug creating an incredible maze of over 20 kilometres, complete with barracks, mess halls, latrines and lighting. The amount and scale of work undertaken is truly astounding. And to think they were right there, under the noses of their enemy.
We’ve all heard about wars, WWI, WWII, or more recently Iraq, but it’s easy to distance ourselves from the conditions of war when we see pictures on TV while sitting in our comfortable homes.
Walking through the tunnels and galleries made by the New Zealander tunnelers (up to 80 m per day!) we stopped at specific spots to see etchings in the chalk walls.
A spot on the wall
Our guide, knowing that we had come from Vancouver, asked Tim and I to follow him to a darkened area, he turned on his flashlight illuminating a spot on the wall where a soldier had scratched his name, the date and his hometown, he was from Vancouver BC. We both got chills and the reality of Canada’s involvement in the Great War, so far from home (deep in a cave) really set in.
The reality of war
We were informed that light deteriorates the etchings so when curating this memorial they had to decide which etchings would be lit and which would stay in the dark. All lighting is motion sensed so the lights come on in front of you and turn off behind you.
We continued on the walkway and eventually arrived at an altar where we listened to a recording of a Catholic mass. This was the place where many of the soldiers celebrated their last Easter mass on April 6th, 1917. The ambiance was bone chilling and the reality of war hung in the air.
During the tour we saw the barracks where the soldiers slept, the kitchen where they prepared their food and even re-creations of their latrines and power plant. There are artifacts and many images and short videos to help understand what these men, often teen aged, lived through.
Our tour guide, who had spent all of his career studying and writing about the battle of Arras, was incredible, and through his detailed descriptions and riveting stories, we were transported back to 1917 and placed in the shoes of the brave soldiers of that time.
By far the most emotional and chilling part of the tour was when we stood at the bottom of a long set of stairs built into the rock, curving up towards an exit. Painted on the wall was the word “trench”.
The lights went off and a very realistic sound track was played, simulating the sounds of soldiers running up the stairs, taking on heavy gunfire and shelling as they exited the caves onto the battlefield. Flashes of light from the doorway and the yelling of wounded soldiers from outside echoed through the tunnels, it was impossible not to feel the fear that those soldiers would have experienced having to run up those stairs. Eventually the lights came on and we all stood in silence for a moment trying to understand what we had just experienced, there wasn’t a dry eye among us.
The battle continued and by the end of April, 4596 men had died. When the battle of Arras finally ended in mid May 1917, complete troops of men representing the male population of many small cities throughout Europe were wiped out. A good deal of Canadian soldiers gave their lives in one of the most incredible war stories history has to offer.
The pamphlet was right, it was a very emotional experience but we were grateful to take the time and learn about it.
Do you ever get emotional when you visit war memorials?