Museum to shed light on diggers' world

World War I Kiwi tunnellers are to be remembered in a new museum in the French town of Arras - appropriately built 22m underground.

The tunnellers, who worked in gold and coal mines in New Zealand, were specially recruited for the New Zealand Tunnelling Company.

They dug a vast complex of tunnels and caverns at Arras on France's northern border with Germany, allowing 20,000 troops to assemble under German lines without their knowledge.

Carriere Wellington will be opened on Saturday morning (NZ time) as a memorial to the New Zealanders and other soldiers who fought in the Battle of Arras in April and May, 1917.

The museum will be housed in the Wellington Cavern which was named by the tunnellers.

The New Zealand Army said on its website tunnelling was a deadly affair which relied on the speed of the diggers.

"Tunnellers would dig a long shaft under the enemy trench system and carve out a bigger cave at the end of the tunnel.

"They would then pack the end cave with about 3000 pounds (1360kg) of explosive and detonate it."

The carbon monoxide created by the blast killed everyone in nearby tunnels. "As they dug the tunnellers would listen to the digging sounds of the enemy. When the digging stopped you could hear the enemy packing explosive and knew that if you weren't ready to blow, you'd lost the race," said the Army.

Last year a memorial to the 41 New Zealand tunnellers who died and the 151 who were injured was unveiled at Arras.

The tunnels were closed in 1945 but rediscovered in 1990 and for several years the Arras Town Council has worked on reopening them.

The museum will house 20 displays showing how the tunnels were built and what life was like for the troops who used them.

Visitors will also be given a tour of the caves and caverns.

- NZPA

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