100 Kiwi Stories from WW1: Tunnellers first on Western Front

By Andrew Stone

Christchurch tunnel in Arras, France was built by the NZ Engineers Tunnelling Company. Sapper Michael Tobin of Tauranga is believed to be the first NZ soldier to die on the Western Front.
Christchurch tunnel in Arras, France was built by the NZ Engineers Tunnelling Company. Sapper Michael Tobin of Tauranga is believed to be the first NZ soldier to die on the Western Front.

9. Taking the war underground

They were the first New Zealanders on the Western Front, arriving in France in the cold spring of 1916. The men were miners, quarrymen and workmen from the Railways or Public Works Department, assembled as the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company.

Independently minded, members were forced to knuckle down to the strictures of military life. The company history records the grumbles at Avondale Racecourse, where the miners gathered and were forced to march in the hot sun complaining "they had enlisted to work, not to prance around on a parade ground".

On December 19, 1915, the company steamed out of Auckland on board the Ruapehu, a refrigerated cargo ship, and reached Plymouth two months later.

Among the men was Sapper Michael Tobin, from the Tauranga Public Works Department. He is considered the first member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to die on the Western Front. He succumbed not from battlefield wounds but from pneumonia, having toiled underground for two freezing months and being admitted to a casualty station with inflammation of the lungs. He was taken to hospital on April 14, 1916, and died the next day.

The sturdy Tobin was not long with the unit, so his engagement with the extraordinary underground effort of the tunnelling unit was limited.

At first the tunnellers undertook counter-mining - a risky job that involved digging below enemy positions before stuffing a cavern with explosives. The force of the blast and the waves of toxic gas it created were designed to wipe out German tunnellers working nearby.

For months the New Zealanders dug into the layers of chalk below the northwestern French town of Arras in preparation for a major offensive in 1917. It was unrelenting and sometimes dangerous work, as the chalk became unstable in damp conditions and could easily collapse.

As the time neared for the assault, the New Zealanders opened up vast caverns. Doors were fitted to tunnels, electricity was wired in, and a subterranean hospital, operating theatre and ventilation plant installed.

The complex was big enough to accommodate 25,000 men.

Deep underground the tunnellers left their calling cards: names of New Zealand towns were inscribed on tunnel walls and supports.

As the deadline loomed for the Battle of Arras, the tunnellers drove shafts towards the front line, allowing troops access to no-man's land where they could storm German positions. When the attack came on April 9, 1917, the soldiers emerged from the earth. Enemy lines were pushed back 11km.

The New Zealanders have not been forgotten. The town of Arras has a memorial to the 41 men of the NZ Tunnelling Company who lost their lives. Sapper Tobin's resting place is 30km away at the Beauval Communal Cemetery.

August 1, 1914 The Herald reports:

• The first official battle of the Austrian-Serbian war has been fought. 16 Serbians were captured and 200 Austrians killed.
• Tension between Russia and Germany rises while France remains optimistic. Britain has united to fight.
• The Russian public's enthusiasm for the war is increasing as mobilisation orders are announced.

Other news:

• A young man will be charged with drunkenness and vagrancy and must leave the city within 48 hours.

- NZ Herald

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