The Battle of Arras, starting on the 9th of April in 1917, was one part of a British assisted offensive doubled with the French in two directions to the North of Imperial Germany. Designed as a distraction to Triple Alliance troops, it required great precision to coordinate troops from all different nationalities, such as Canada and New Zealand. These troops would push in across the temporary front.
A key advantage which the British troops possessed were a system of underground caverns dating from the 16th century, providing crucial accommodation for troops so that they could be deployed in the area as a complete surprise. The Germans did not know about these quarries.
The deep tunnels were established with the purpose of mining limestone and chalk from them to build civilian and commercial buildings. But, twenty metres deep under solid stone, these caves would offer much more than mere materials.
Originally, the quarry was only accessible via a deep well, which could be gotten down by a rope-pulley system. With the war efforts in mind, British commanders re discovered this useful stronghold, and converted it to an organised stationary post for their 24,000 troops which were preparing for the Battle of Arras.
The blocked-off original well, which was still used up until the War.
Sleeping was incredibly difficult. Water absorbed from the surface plunged down into the cellars, making for freezing conditions and wet weapons. Furthermore, there were no mattresses, rather just a blanket to keep warm. Which was still difficult.
The caves were probably very busy as well. With the thousands of infantry men and even the operation of a surgical theatre, it must have been quite a noisy environment. However, all these sounds were contained deep beneath the town. In the Second World War, it was used as a bomb shelter.
Many items used by the soldiers still remain there today. Cans of Heinz beans, Worcester sauce and cigarettes. Huge pots for storing rum are layed out on the bunks. There are also hundreds of glass bottles for holding water and alcohol.
The miners’ abandoned pickaxes were left in a heap of stone and other tools.
Food stores included corn beef and toffees, and they had to alternate between tea and coffee to keep warm depending on the supplies. Pork and beans was a common meal as well.
The walls are covered in marking – the two main colours are red and black.
- Black ink is from World War I
- Red ink is from World War II
Furthermore, the latrines (toilets) were very primitive. Most were just holes and some were buckets. Waste would have to be regularly carried out by mine cart. Some soldiers would wait until four of five others had used the toilets before going, so that the icy seats had been warmed up!
Toilet area in Arras caves
Additionally, frequent religious services were carried out, despite the awful conditions. An improvised altar was set up in one chamber underground and you can still see the candle grease on the walls. Long, open walkways let the sound of hymns travel far, echoing off the rock – and if sound can fly, then birds can too. Pigeon carriers were kept down in the darkness, ready to be used for messaging when needed.
Signatures have been cut into the chalk walls, such as one of Sargent Ashford of the Second Suffolk regiment.
Across the sides of the caves, there are drawings. One shows the “long-engaged woman”, another a soldier and a woman with a big hat. It’s impressive how good the artwork is.
Here is an example of a very clear drawing:
And some less noticeable:
I’ve been on a trip to Northern France and Belgium to see the World War I trenches and this is one of the places I enjoyed the most.