The Carrière Wellington (Wellington Quarry) is a World War I site underneath the town of Arras, located in the chalk quarries that date back to the Middle Ages. Now open as a visitor centre, you can go underground on a guided tour to see where so many soldiers lived before they died in the disastrous Battle of Arras of 1917.
The town of Arras in northern France is built on a large chalk plateau, which had been mined extensively during the Middle Ages for building stone. The mines had fallen into disuse by the start of the 20th century, but during World War I, the tunnels were excavated by New Zealand and British miners and extended to house troops before the major assault on the western front at Arras, protecting them from the constant bombardment and enabling them to reach the front lines in secrecy.
The tunnels housed up to 20,000 men and were equipped with light, water, latrines, a hospital and a small railway. It was a dangerous task and many died in the process. At 5.30am on 9th April 1917, after eight days hidden in the tunnels, thousands of men poured out of the exits and stormed the German trenches. The final death toll was catastrophic.
The tour starts in the small exhibition area, where you receive your audio guides, don your tin hats and then descend in a glass lift with the guide. The tour lasts about an hour and is excellently done, with a mixture of the audio guide, in your own language, and the tour guide who presents in both French and English.
There are short films shown on the walls of the tunnels, and small displays showing you how the soldiers lived during their time underground. It is really quite harrowing, walking through those dimly lit tunnels, still with the original electricity installed at the time, with pencil drawings on the walls drawn by the soldiers, listening to recordings of their letters home written from here, and hearing recordings of the songs they sang.
The name 'Wellington Tunnels' refers to the city of Wellington in New Zealand - the tunnellers named the various areas after towns and cities from back home, apparently with striking similarities between the topographical layout in the quarry and their namesakes in New Zealand. Those skilled men, thousands of miles away from home on the other side of the globe, naming their chalky underground world after places of great natural beauty before they were slaughtered in a pointless battle is a heartbreaking thought.
What brought the biggest lump to my throat was seeing the uneven rock hewn steps they used to ascend to the front line and emerge blinking in the daylight after so long underground, many of them to be brutally killed.
Although the battle of Arras was initially a success, the Allies failed to capitalise on their gains, with 4000 men a day dying for 39 days.
The offensive was finally called off, meaning so many died in vain. The tour ends with a ten minute film outlining what happened during the battle and it is impossible to leave without a tear in the eye.
It was very moving, educational and definitely worth a visit, particularly for children to get them to really understand and to bring the text books to life. The horrors of war can seem so distant to them, this really brought it all into immediate focus.
The tunnels of Arras are also on the GCSE 'Medicine Through the Ages' History syllabus, making it an ideal place to take secondary school age children. I’m not sure my teenager fully appreciated the educational benefits to her exams, but she couldn’t help but absorb the knowledge and tragedy of that softly lit and uncomfortable place.
VISITING THE CARRIÈRE WELLINGTON
Every day, all year except for 25 Dec, 1 Jan, 6 - 24 Jan
Open 10am - 12.30 and 1.30 - 6pm
All visits are guided tours will last approx 1 hour.
In busy periods, it is a good idea to book your ticket online in advance, as tours can only hold up to 17 people
Child and student: €3.50
English audioguides are available and there is English on all signage and interpretation boards. Staff speak excellent English.
The site is wheelchair accessible. I wouldn't advise taking children of pushchair age.
Free parking is available on site.