Arras tunnel honours wartime heroes
Thousands of people paid tribute to little-known Kiwi wartime heroes yesterday by visiting Wellington's new war memorial park tunnel, named after a forgotten battleground in France.
The Arras Tunnel in Te Aro, connecting the Basin Reserve to Taranaki St, is named after a small French town where 500 Kiwis dug extensive tunnels during WWI.
Alongside the many thousand Wellingtonians curious to see the inside of the tunnel, dozens of descendants of the New Zealand tunnelling company were present, most travelling from other towns and cities for the special day.
"It's a terrific honour," said Paraparaumu man Richard Martin, the 86-year-old son of sapper Bertram Martin.
"It's quite amazing that after 100 years this could happen. After all, they were just humble labourers."
Most of the tunneling company were miners from places like Waihi, Thames and and West Coast. They were the first Kiwi soldiers at the Western Front, the last to leave the Western Front, and sustained the first Kiwi death in that theatre of war, said Waihi representative Kit Wilson.
The men were directed by the British army to dig tunnels from Arras to the German trenches, in preparation for the Battle of Arras in 1917. It was dangerous work and 80 men lost their lives. Many never spoke of their experiences on returning to New Zealand, and the company was barely remembered in this country, Wilson said.
"They didn't expect the earth, they went and did what was expected of them. They came home, they went back to their jobs, and were largely forgotten.
"That walk through the tunnel, it was not just a saunter. It was a walk of remembrance, of reconnection."
There existed no other memorial to the tunnelling company in New Zealand, although one was planned for Waihi in 2016, Wilson said.
The day started with a solemn laying of wreaths at the National War Memorial above the tunnel, with dignitaries including Minister of Culture and Heritage Chris Finlayson, chief of army Dave Gawn, Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown, and the deputy mayor of Arras.
Three schoolchildren cut the ribbon to the tunnel, whose walls were lined with large memorial poppies.