While the Canadians awaited the end of the bombardment that signalled the beginning of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, to the south the British and French were also planning simultaneous attacks. At Arras, in a 20-kilometre labrynth of tunnels and underground quarries, the British had hidden 25,000 men in Carriere Wellington ready to spring a surprise attack.
For a week before the balloon went up these troops lived in an underground city secreted literally under the nose of the enemy. From the Middle Ages to the 17th Century underground quarries flourished until chalk was replaced as a favoured building material. The abandoned and all but forgotten quarries were turned by the British into a temporary underground city, complete with cookhouses, bunkhouses and outhouses, hospitals, chapels and communications centres.
A new museum has recently opened the tunnels to the public, and Saturday some delegates, including a number of veterans, on the Veterans Affairs Canada tour commemorating the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge were able to see some of the handiwork that turned the tide of war. They saw how these bored soldiers whiled away their time, playing cards, writing letters, drawing and carving poignant artwork in the soft chalk walls.
New Zealand and Royal Engineer tunneling companies linked up the ancient quarries with tunnels, creating room to hide the British Third Army for a week. From these tunnels, the army ascended into battle, two kilometres closer to the German lines than the enemy expected. Although there was fierce fighting, the British at Arras and the Canadians at Vimy Ridge had succeeded, moving the front line 13 or so kilometres, after years of stalemate.
Here’s a historical anomaly gleaned on the tour: The lavatories in the British-held quarries during the First World War were known by a French word: latrines; in the Second World War, when the quarries were pressed into service by the French to protect the citizens of Arras when the town was bombed, they used W.C. to describe their facilities–shorthand of the British term ‘water closet’.