from ‘the War Illustrated’ 30th November, 1918
'The Secret City of Arras'


the Tunnels of Arras

a typical underground shelter

British troops on the Grande Place at Arras


My first acquaintance with the Arras tunnels had every element of surprise. Our guide that day was a grave Highlander, an elderly staff-major whose long service in the thick of battles had deepened the .native melancholy of the Gael, leaving him still a kindly, gentle soul, with a quiet, reserved humour, which may have suggested to him the manner of our introduction. In a deserted avenue he stopped our car and, dismounting, gave to me and my companion each a candle, saying we should need these where we were going. I was reminded of the guide to the catacombs of Rome with his handful of tapers. Our little candles were to throw their beams upon works as wonderful and not unlike the catacombs.

In the middle of the weedy, rubble-strewn grass that occupied the space between the two roadways of the wide avenue, once so trim, we come to an opening in the ground and follow the major down the wide and easy steps as if we might be going to take train on some rough-finished "Tube." Presently the need of the candles appears, the darkness enclosing us before we have reached the bottom of the steps. So with candles flickering we continue, now thirty feet or so below the level of the avenue.

Eighteen Toil-Filled Months

Well, a tunnel is a tunnel, and little is there to distinguish one from another, save that some are circular and some rectangular. Beyond these varieties it is a matter of dimension and the character of the soil that determine their individuality. This of Arras is after the manner of the familiar pit gallery, its top clearing the head of the average man by a foot or so, and it is wide enough for two to walk abreast. It is hewn from the stratum of soft, porous stone that underlies the fields of Artois, and crops out here and there in boss and hummock. The countless chisel- marks left by the willing hands engaged in this titanic hewing are eloquent of the mighty labour that went on here for eighteen toil-filled months until the hour had struck for the Battle of Arras.

Along the first hundred yards of the tunnel the mind of the visitor is busied chiefly in noting the splendid workmanship. With a fine suggestion of enduring strength, stout pine logs stand rigidly erect at every few feet, supporting the heavy cross timbers of the roof. They give one a feeling that this underway has been made to last for ever. Suddenly the major calls to us to look out, as there has been a heavy roof-fall, and the ground is heaped high with the stony debris. We realise swiftly that "ever" is a long time, and Nature has a habit of letting her rocks crumble and decay.

As hundred yards of our subterranean progress are added to hundreds, the impression of the extensiveness of these underways deepens ; we pass junctions where cross-ways intersect the main tunnel we are following; "Glasgow," "Manchester," and many another name of home are revealed on signposts by the gleam of our candles ; vast cavernous recesses loom weirdly dark and still, like grottos in the gorges of the Tarn, explored by candlelight lang syne.

Voices. are heard, lights appear down one of these sideways, and, our guide piloting us in that direction, we come upon a labour gang winding up the electric cables which were used for lighting this underworld when the great enterprise they were designed for was still in being. We had noticed many smoked and grease-smeared patches on the walls where tallow flares had lighted the workers before the electricians with their magic wires and bulbs had come upon the scene, and candles were serving again when the miles of wiring and the thousands of little lamps were being gathered up now that the great "show" was over.


one of the city gates to Arras


Purpose of the Tunnels

A wonderful sight it must have been in those long preparatory months when, by day and night, the ever-lengthening tunnels were thronged with perspiring soldier-workmen, hewing down the stone, sending the thousands of tons of it which they cut away back in little bogies drawn by electric motors along the miniature railway whose terminus was every day a little nearer the forward trenches east of Arras. Down in these underways labour would go on as steadily as in the railway tunnelling of London Town, though houses would be crashing into ruin, and great holes opening in the roads above when the Boche shells were bursting in Arras and its suburbs.

The purpose of the underways of Arras was to save the lives of soldiers. From the earliest days of the war the enemy had been able to cling to a trench system in the outward eastern suburbs of the town, and there in places no more than the cellarage of a suburban house separated the antagonists.

There were streets down which the Boche could stream his machine-gun bullets, and trenches and wire entanglements were made where the petite bourgeoisie had once lived in peaceful comfort. The Arras Battle of April, 1917, was planned to thrust the foe away from his lair, to sweep him backward on his base at Cambrai; and the slaughter of the British in an enterprise so perilous, owing to the exposed nature of the terrain and the German field defences, would have been too great a price to pay for victory.

A Forty Minutes' Harvest

Fortunately, Arras abounds in splendid cellars, many of them as strong as old church crypts, and there is a system of underground quarries in the eastern suburbs. So these tunnels were built to link up cellars and quarries, and thus an immense underground city was constructed, in whose electric-lighted highways and byways not merely a regiment or two, but an army corps, could be sheltered and moved up to the trenches in the open country eastward, whither the tunnels were driven.

How well these underways served their purpose may be judged from Sir Douglas Haig's official description of the opening of the Arras Battle.

After a three weeks' bombardment the general attack was launched at 5.30 a.m. on April 9th, under cover of a most effective artillery barrage. Closely following a tornado of our shell fire, our gallant infantry poured like a flood across the German lines, overwhelming the enemy's garrison?. Within forty minutes of the opening of the battle, practically the whole of the German front-line system on the front attacked had been stormed and taken.

When the German third line and Monchy-le-Preux, five miles east of Arras, had been taken with the aid of cavalry and the Tanks two days later, the victorious Battle of Arras was already drawing to a close. Those glorious "forty minutes" of the opening attack had been: made possible by the long and laborious burrowing in underground Arras. Eighteen months of ceaseless toil had gone to the making of the underways ; for six weeks only the military movements in and through them continued, and forty minutes was really the time in which the harvest of all that stupendous toil was garnered. Here is something to ponder over, ye who expected a "decisive'' victory every morning !

The fact that a year and a half went in the making of these underways tells us something about the inconceivable magnitude of modern military movements. The hour of Arras Battle struck at 5.30 a.m. on April 9th, 1917, so that it was already being planned in the autumn of 1915. In other words, while thoughtless optimists were babbling about the war being over before its second Christmas, "or at latest next spring," the British Staff was wisely planning a battle — but one of many then foreseen — for eighteen months later.

Romance of the Underworld

The Battle of Arras was really being fought and won in those long months of underground preparation ; the chisel-marks along the tunnel walls are the records of so many little blows contributory to the great achievement of those three April days of 1917. And the secrecy with which the making of this subterranean city of shelter, these underways for immense bodies of troops to issue safely on the actual field of battle, was carried through, is no less worthy of remembering, when we are being regaled with admiring tales of the Germans' genius for organisation and their ingenuity in field fortifications.

So ran my thoughts during my visits to the underways of Arras where, although we wandered about until our candles were guttering, we explored no more than a corner of this strange undertown, which in years to come will surely prove a fountain of romance and of every kind of imaginative adventure.

On my first visit we regained the daylight by climbing some forty feet up a rough wooden ladder fastened flat against the dripping wall of an airshaft, and found ourselves blinking amid a great collection of "dud" shells and those queer trench-mortar bombs, with long handles like sledge- hammers, which had been sent over by Fritz without doing a ha'penny worth of damage. We were in a. distant quarter of the town from the avenue where we descended.

When I revisited the scene we entered a little battered house and went down a trapdoor in its cellar into the underways, coming out again, after our exploration, through the kitchen of another house. There are many such entrances and exits, and when Arras is restored to peaceful days, what possibilities of romantic and criminal adventure may not arise from these cellar doors that lead into this weird and widespread city of the underworld !

see also : the Great Battle of Arras in 1917

pages from 'the War Illustrated' showing views of Arras after the fighting


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