We will remember them
(Extracts from ANZAC Day presentation, 2008)

Miners at War
written for Quarrying & Mining magazine

A Tunneller's grandson tells his story
Committee member Mike Roycroft tells the story of his grandfather

The Caves of Arras
Thames Star 1917

Good War Service
Evening Post 1919

Most Frightful Fight Ever Seen
Wanganui Chronicle 1917

The New Zealand Tunnelling Company
J.C.Neill, 1922

Waihi Tunnellers
Maori Television 2010

Unit War Diary, Arras
Nov 1916-April 1917

Miners at War
The New Zealand Tunnellers of World War One

Sue Baker Wilson, Kit Wilson
Waihi Heritage Vision

During the First World War miners from New Zealand found themselves on the Western Front tunnelling under the front lines in a deadly game of cat and mouse. Where did these men come from? How did they end up fighting an underground war? What happened to them when they returned?

In September 1915 the Imperial Government requested that New Zealand raise an Engineering Tunnelling Company of three or four hundred men. Men from communities like Waihi and Karangahake soon left to work underground on the front lines.

Most of the tunnellers were quarrymen, miners from the Hauraki Goldfields, or labourers from the Railways and Public Works Departments. Others were coal miners from the West Coast. Waihi would supply the second largest group of men to enlist, with only Auckland providing more. The officers were drawn chiefly from the engineering staff of the Public Works Department, with a sprinkling of mining engineers.

In October 1915 the company assembled on Avondale Racecourse in Auckland. There was no need for technical training such as learning how to construct tunnels and use equipment. Instead, the men, ‘most of them strangers to military matters’, were taught squad drill without arms, learning to take orders, and routine duties. Lectures were given on saluting, dress, military law, health and sanitation.

Like Waihi, Avondale was a dry area. However, the ‘Waiheathens’ had long ago developed ways around unwelcome alcohol restrictions. It wasn’t long before sly grog was being sold – at a fish shop. A police raid found the shop fitted up like a miniature bar, with glasses on the counter in the back room.

There were soon conflicts between the tunnellers and civilian authorities, with the Company ‘shaking up the near-by city of Auckland as it had never been shaken before’. It was reported that ‘the only enthusiasm the citizens of Auckland showed to the Company was when they bade it farewell’.

Two months later Tunnelling Company arrived in Falmouth, Cornwall.

‘In a few days the Tunnellers settled down to training under British instructors, or rather they settled down to it as much as they were ever likely to do, which is not saying a great deal. Such men did not take kindly to drill and were later famed throughout the Expeditionary force as being the toughest and roughest Company’.
The Main Body reached the Western Front in March 1916. They were the first New Zealand Expeditionary Force men on the Western Front.

The Company operated at the foot of Vimy Ridge near Arras, in a counter-mining role. The underground war hinged on the speed of the digging. Tunnellers would dig a tunnel under the enemy trench system and carve out a cave at the end of the tunnel. They would then pack the cave with about 3000 pounds of explosives, retreat and detonate it.

When an explosion of this size went off underground, everyone in nearby tunnels, even unconnected to the explosion, was killed by carbon monoxide created by the blast.

As they dug, the tunnellers would listen to the digging sounds of the enemy. When digging stopped and you could hear the enemy packing explosives knew that if you weren't ready to blow, you’d lost the race.

The New Zealand tunnellers dug at three times the rate of the German tunnellers. Only once during the war did the enemy blow a mine before the Kiwis were able to counter-mine.

In the early days New Zealand Tunnellers knew nothing of geophone listening and they had to learn mine rescue work and other details of mining practice as they went. Teams were sent for training and it was a fast learning curve.

The tunnellers were transferred to Arras, staying there for the next two years. As before, the company’s job was to listen, locate the enemy, and drive them back into no-man’s land.

It was at Arras that the New Zealanders abandoned the Royal Engineers’ method of small, fully timbered tunnels, switching to a larger, more ‘Kiwi version’. A typical New Zealand gallery would be 6 feet by 3 feet 6 inches wide, for ‘decent room to swing a pick’. They were big men and dug big tunnels. Because they liked to see the ground they were working in – arguing that it talks to miners who know the language – the tunnels were unlined and only supported here and there by rough props.

The New Zealanders’ methods also differed one other crucial respect. New Zealand tunnellers also always timbered at right angles to the slope and not vertical as English and German counterparts did.

Men of the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion assisted the Tunnelling Company in Arras. Imperial policy had initially opposed the idea of ‘native peoples’ fighting in a war amongst Europeans, although this view changed as casualties mounted. A Native Contingent left New Zealand in 1915.

Maori miners working alongside European miners in Waihi mines may have also enlisted in the Tunnelling Company. There is some evidence to suggest that – as in the Boer War – Maori wanting to fight overseas anglicised their names or enlisted under European names.

On the front mining timber was very strictly rationed. The Company would be in chronically short supply while adjacent Royal Engineers would be loaded with desirable timber. The Pioneers had a most effective way of helping themselves to these tempting piles. If they were caught by an infuriated Royal Engineers officer while raiding supplies they simply pretended they didn’t speak English. On one occasion an officer collected a beautiful lot of timber for a special job. He carefully lowered it down a shaft, but on going down to collect it found not one piece. Some Pioneers had seen the timber coming down and carried every scrap away to their own work.

The Company also had the job of disposing of damaged ammunition. In one incident 13,000 shells were lowered 95 feet below the surface and stacked in one of the old mine galleries. 45 electric detonators were prepared for an explosion.

‘When the exploder handle was shoved home, a huge column of smoke and debris rose high in the air and slowly drifted leeward. It was reported that troops four miles away ‘stood to’ for a gas attack. The explosion also left a smoking seventy-foot crater’.

In Arras, the New Zealanders were credited with the rediscovery of old underground quarries, limestone caverns that were left after material was excavated to rebuild the city of Arras in the seventeenth century.

With a major Allied push planned for April 1917, the New Zealanders worked to connect and open up these underground quarries to make the system suitable to house troops. It was reported that in four and half months the New Zealanders would make six miles of gallery and level 15 acres of caves.

The chalkstone was white, resembling the Oamaru stone of New Zealand, only finer and denser in structure and capable of being more finely carved. It was mined in much the same manner as a coal seam, pillars of material being left to support the ground overhead.

The New Zealanders gave the caverns along their line names from home: Russell, Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Blenheim, Christchurch, Dunedin and Bluff. The caves were fitted with gas doors, ventilating plant, electric light, running water and other facilities, including a hospital and operating theatre.

The cavern system was reputed to be large enough to hold between 20,000 and 25,000 men. It is suggested that probably 30,000 men slept one or more nights in the caves and may more passed through them. The development of underground shelter for attacking troops to the extent carried out at Arras by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company is believed to be unique in military history.

After the Arras attack the Tunnellers worked on road making before moving to their next big task. The construction of the Havrincourt Bridge over the Canal du Nord was a notable engineering feat. The NZTC was not a trained bridging company and had little equipment for the task. The canal was practically front line so no preliminary work could be done prior to construction beyond taking measurements. After eight days the bridge was finished, complete with footways and handrails. It was reputed to have been the longest single span military bridge up to that time.

Few people have known about the stories of the special group of men who fought an underground war or of the goldfields men from Waihi. They left from the mines to work in secret, underground in France. They worked in extreme work and weather conditions. They were buried underground, gassed and shelled. At their own special work, mine warfare, they showed the highest qualities both as military engineers as well as fighting troops.

The last of the Tunnelling Company enlistments arrived home in April 1919. Apart from the Pioneer Battalion they were the only men who would return to New Zealand as a complete unit, and they returned after the Pioneers. Their ship the Ionic dropped anchor in Auckland Harbour at 9.00pm on April 23 and the Tunnellers disembarked on April 24, 1919. They returned to New Zealand and their jobs. Some like the men from Waihi would return to their underground work and a constant reminder of their wartime experiences. There is no Tunnelling Company memorial. In their home country, they were forgotten.



When an explosion of this size went off underground, everyone in nearby tunnels, even unconnected to the explosion, was killed by carbon monoxide created by the blast.


The New Zealand tunnellers dug at three times the rate of the German tunnellers. Only once during the war did the enemy blow a mine before the Kiwis were able to counter-mine.


Maori miners working alongside European miners in Waihi mines may have also enlisted in the Tunnelling Company. There is some evidence to suggest that, as in the Boer War, Maori wanting to fight overseas anglicised their names or enlisted under European names.


They returned to New Zealand and their jobs. Some like the men from Waihi would return to their underground work and a constant reminder of their wartime experiences.