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WW1 NZ Tunnelling Company & shared memories


The World War One New Zealand Tunnelling Company is most well-known for the development of the Arras tunnels, a complex cavern system designed to provide protection to soldiers as well as provide the advantage of a surprise attack in what would be known as the 1917 Battle of Arras. New Zealand Tunnellers tasked with the job of connecting up the French caverns were assisted by numerous other New Zealand army personnel, including a number of soldiers drawn from the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion. Bonds were formed that still exist today, with the recent World War One commemorations providing an opportunity to recover lost stories as well as build on existing shared histories. Wellington residents and visitors to the city will be most familiar with the vehicle underpass named the Arras Tunnel in honour of the Tunnellers. 


The last Arras Mayoral visit to Waihi was around Anzac Day 2019. At the New Zealand Tunnelling Company Memorial at Gilmour Lake in Waihi, Cook Islands Queen Pa Upokotini Ariki Vaka Takitumu spoke, strengthening the connections between Arras and the links to the story of the three Cook Islanders who were among the 43 Pioneers who served alongside the Tunnellers.
Their journey and the graffiti they left behind are also shared at the Carriere Wellington Museum in Arras. Visitors there can descend underground and see for themselves work undertaken by the Tunnellers and others.

Fast forward to Armistice Day in November 2021 and Carriere Wellington Museum has since undergone a renovation. The journey of the New Zealand Tunnellers to Arras features even more strongly than before. Visitors can learn more about the graffiti, drawings and inscriptions which provide traces and memories of those preparing for and going into battle. They can even listen to a brand new recording of the Tunnelling Company song first heard over 100 years ago. This was lost over time until research uncovered the verses and accompanying music. With the help of the New Zealand Army Band, the newly recorded song of ‘We’ll Stand by You’ helps to take us back to the values of brotherhood and solidarity that many serving miners lived by. 


New Zealand women’s stories are also not forgotten in Arras. The New Zealand Tunnelling Company Memorial in Arras by Paris-based New Zealand sculptor Marian Fountain was dedicated in 2017. Text and images of soldiers evoke memories of the women and families left behind in New Zealand. The stunning memorial even includes a rendition of a postcard sent home care of the BNZ, Waihi. Ironic to think that Waihi’s own BNZ no longer exists while Arras now helps retain memories of the importance of banks in small town New Zealand. 

The link below is well worth listening to, as Marian explains more about the Tunnelling Company and 'The Earth Remembers' monument.

Another, even more recent memorial with a connection to Arras is the Pasifika memorial 'Te Reo Hotunui o Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa/The Deep Sigh of the Pacific'. Designed by artist Michel Tuffery of Samoan, Tahitian and Cook Islands descent, it was dedicated at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in 2021. The design is based on a seashell found in the Arras caverns. It has been described as a taonga connecting communities.See and for more, here

As well as her Aotearoa New Zealand responsibilities, the French Ambassador based in Wellington has Cook Islands links through her Ambassador’s role. The former French Ambassador Florence Jeanblanc-Risler attended the Tunnelling Company Memorial dedication in Waihi in 2016. The current Ambassador Madame Sylvaine Carta-Le Vert was among the officials attending the March 2021 public opening of the Pasifika memorial. On Armistice Day 2021, the Ambassador was back at the memorial to lay a wreath on behalf of the people of France. Ambassador Sylvaine Carta-Le Vert has said, ‘France will never forget the sacrifice of these soldiers and expresses its deepest gratitude to them.”

Tauranga-based readers of the ‘French With Shelley’ website and newsletters can also help remember our shared World War One Tunnelling Company stories. Next time you pass by the Tauranga Domain Memorial Gate, stop to pay your respects to New Zealand’s first recorded NZEF death on the Western Front, Sapper Michael Tobin (pictured above). Prior to enlisting Sapper Tobin worked for the Public Works Department in Tauranga. He died of bronchial pneumonia and today rests, the only New Zealander, in the Beauval Communal Cemetery, Somme France. Visitors to the Tauranga gates will find his date of death is incorrectly recorded as 1915, rather than 1916. Like many things, over time, stories and ‘facts’ are lost. Today, we have the opportunity to examine the past and learn new ‘truths’ as well as a better understanding of what binds us all as we move forward. 

Photo: March 2021 at the opening of the Pasifika Memorial, Pukeahu National War Memorial Park. Back ; Cook Islands Queen Pa Upokotini Ariki Vaka Takitumu with Cook Islands Prime Minister the Honourable Mark Brown on her right. Bottom row, Researcher Sue Baker Wilson with Cook Islands Vietnam veteran and NZ Tunnelling Company supporter, Tinokura Tairea on her right.

Thanks to Sue Baker Wilson QSM for this article.