NZETC Tour 2012
Kiwis Underground - A Tunneller's Story
Brett Killington

Brett Killington joined the NZETC inaugural descendants’ Western Front pilgrimage in April 2012 and offered his skills as professional photographer to record this special journey. His photos captured a great record and also provided an evocative insight into the physical and spiritual journey of the participants. Brett is documenting through photography the underground world of the New Zealand soldier in World War One. This is his story.

Like many young men from my country migration to foreign shores was based on the desire for adventure however, unlike those young men who went to the First World War I have never been shot at. After getting my qualifications as a photographer in the Royal New Zealand Air Force some 20 years ago it feels like my life has travelled full circle and is now drawing me back towards the military documentation of a period that haunts our memories but fills our country with pride.

In a French town called Arras, about twenty metres underground, in complete darkness, I have discovered the trace of those involved in the events of nearly a century ago. The space underground is a group of quarries connected by a series of tunnels. These tunnels where found, explored and opened up by Alain Jacques who is the Director of Archaeology in Arras. One of the quarries called “Wellington” is now open as a museum and run by the Arras Tourism Office under the guidance of its Director Christophe Serieys and Manageress Isabelle Pilarowski.

The areas that I wanted to explore are not open to the public, however, through a series of emails, I was introduced to Christopher Pugsley a leading New Zealand Military Historian who helped me gain access to the site through his connections with both Alain and the Museum.

The New Zealanders involved underground in Arras where the NZ Tunnelling Company. They were formed in September 1915 due to an urgent request from Britain who needed a large number of Tunnellers to work on the Western Front. The NZ Tunnelling Company finally arrived in Arras on the 15th of March 1916.

In September 1916 Officers of the Company discovered a series of underground quarries that dated back to medieval times. These quarries had the potential to create an underground route to the German front line. The Kiwis went about connecting the quarries through a series of tunnels that would eventually take them from the centre of Arras to the German front line. Each connecting quarry was given a geographically correct New Zealand place name.

All this work was done in preparation for the Battle of Arras which began on 9 April 1917. Before the battle there were thousands of soldiers housed underground preparing to attack the German’s front line. As the battle began, the use of the tunnels surprised the Germans and helped the soldiers in the initial attack. However, like most of the actions in the war at that time, success and failure came in equal measures with the loss of many men.

With confirmation from Isabelle that I had been granted access to the site I set out on a ten hour trip in my VW campervan from Bristol to Arras in early July 2011. I was invited to go on a tour of “Wellington” with one of the guides on my arrival so, after booking myself into a camping ground just outside Arras I set off to the quarries. To get into “Wellington” you go down in a lift. While going down in this lift my heart was pounding as I did not know what to expect as I am terrified of the dark, however, this was never going to stop me. Wellington Quarries is an amazing space, but it had been set out as a museum so I was unsure of how this project was going to progress.

Over the next few days I wandered around “Wellington” during the lunch time breaks from tours and got to feel more comfortable underground. I initially always jumped when I set of one of the audio visuals that had men singing or tapping away with their picks, however, very soon I began to enjoy their company. I was still feeling my way around the space when I took more notice of a long dark tunnel that wasn’t shown as part of the tour. I mentioned this to one of the staff who suggested I borrow a hard hat and have a look down it. So climbing over the rails of the museum tour I set off with my trusted mag-lite down the tunnel that was created by the New Zealanders to take you from “Wellington” to “Auckland”, it was about a hundred metres long.

When I arrived in “Auckland” I knew my project had begun. I came upon another large space that was completely dark and void of any modern day intervention. I stayed near the entrance on this first visit as being on my own I felt that for safety reasons this was as far as I should go, also that shear darkness and being in the unknown on my own was quite intimidating, remember, I was not a big fan of the dark.

I went back to the camping ground in great spirits as I had made provision for an exploration into this dark unknown, I had invited a good friend Garreth Hughes to accompany me in the tunnels and he was arriving by train the next day. After picking Garreth up we headed off to the museum and after quick introductions soon found ourselves standing at the entrance of “Auckland”. This place was a real time capsule. All around on the ground were items relating to the war including shoes, nails, tin cans, cloth and barbed wire. However the real joy of the space was there on the walls. It was the inscriptions and drawings that the soldiers had left behind. Individual names were carved into the chalk walls along with drawings of men, women, wine bottles and other objects. In one area we also found a series of crosses carved into a wall. I have been told that they were made by stretcher bearers while they were waiting to go up for the wounded during the Battle.

I tried a number of ways to capture images of them over a couple of days and then headed back home to analyse the results. From my first attempts I came up with a practical way to record the images that best kept the sense of the profound darkness they were in. I realised from this first trip that there was more than just the New Zealand soldiers work to document. This would always be my first objective but with thousands of men from both Canada and Great Britain housed there I would also photograph their graffiti.

We headed back to Arras in February 2012 and began successfully documenting the space and graffiti in Auckland.

Two other Quarry systems we were interested in were “Nelson” and “Blenheim”, however, both of these two sites were behind a locked gate. The key was held by Alain and we were most grateful to him when he allowed us access into both of them. We first went with a member of the museum staff but after his positive feedback as to our professionalism we were given the key to explore on our own. The new spaces had an amazing landscape and the height of some of the arched roofs where those of the size of a Cathedral. We had a couple of days to get a good look around and begin to document the landscape and the graffiti. We found a number of beautiful woman’s faces along with soldier’s names and service numbers. The longest time we stayed underground was 6 hours and it was pretty tiring. The New Zealanders worked 8 hour shifts in complete silence nearly everyday and I have the greatest respect for what they achieved. I know that these were hardened miners but the conditions they worked in were very difficult, with the Germans nearby and the ever present dampness of the underground. I left a piece of equipment out over night and the next day it was soaking wet. Many of the men’s health were affected for the rest of their lives because of it.

This had been a very successful trip as we began to really get to know the place along with the staff that have always been very supportive. There was also a realisation that we were working on and in a very special place.

My next trip to Arras would have me working above ground. April the 9th this year marked the 95th anniversary of the battle of Arras. I am involved with a group called The New Zealand Tunnelling Company. They organised a trip for some of the descendants of the Tunnellers to come over for the event.

I offered to document their trip which would include a visit to a number of military cemeteries plots where the descendant’s relatives were buried. I went on this trip with my wife and we were both moved by the experience and the great people we meet.

I will definitely be there for the 100th anniversary of the battle.

Garreth and I headed back to Arras in July of this year. We had booked off work for two weeks so I would have plenty of time to take the images I needed. We headed back to our camping ground and found a great spot to set up on.

We spent most of our time in “Nelson” and “Blenheim” as Alain had again given us the key. With more time to spend I sat many a time in complete darkness in different tunnels the Kiwis had created just thinking about it all. This place is so emotive thinking of them all here so many years ago. You can never go long without thinking of the pain and the loss of so many men from different countries. This project has got me completely obsessed with this conflict and whatever you read about it; it is never very long before the number of casualties is mentioned.

I now have over 400 images from all my trips to work through and catalogue. We are hoping to go back next February to spend time underground with Alain so we can get a better picture of how it all fits in. We also hope to go into a couple of areas we have not been into yet but we will have to wait and see.

So now I have all these images what next? The main aim of this project was to create a body of work that can be used to celebrate and commemorate the participation of the New Zealand Army on the up and coming 100th anniversary of the First World War. The artefacts that will emerge from my photographic interrogation of this topic will be in two forms. In the short term I hope to create a series of exhibitions involving Museums and Art Galleries Internationally. The long term approach will be in the form of a book and the hope that my work will be archived in various Military Museums and Collections.

As a footnote I can say that after spending so much time in pitch black darkness I’m not as afraid of the dark as I was.

You can follow this project on my website under heading of WW1 Tunnels.

You can also follow Brett's project on his blog

All photos © Brett Killington