Howard Chamberlain was a member of the New Zealand forces serving in Malaya. Today he is one of the custodians of the Royal New Zealand Engineers Museum at Linton Camp. This year he made a pilgrimage to the Western Front. This is the first article in a series on his experiences.
Selecting A Commemorative Tour
By Howard Chamberlain
By the time 2014 had arrived it was evident that there would be many World War One (WW1) commemorative and remembrance services.
For some time I had wondered about seeing if I could go on one of these commemorative visits.
Arras in July 2017 was an initial choice but I had left that too late and so sought to see if I could go to Passchendaele in October.
My wife agreed that I should go, but she did not want to, so I booked in with a tour through Steven Parsons House of Travel in Palmerston North.
This visit had the advantage of having Professor Glyn Harper, War Studies Department Massey University, as our historical advisor.
The blurb of information about the trip gave a detailed itinerary over the ten days and included the name Bob Beelen as our tour guide.
We also had a bus for all our travels and for all but three days we had the same bus with Paul as our driver. With Glyn, Bob, and Paul we had a brilliant team.
A series of daily adventures
Each day became an adventure.
Our visits started in Paris with Arc de Triomphe when we went to the top, then off to Napoleon’s Tomb and Les Invalids – Musée de l’Armée and then the Pantheon and Paroisse Saint–Etienne–du–Mont.
Each of these had their own stories which have been built around them to tell of the past and to tell in the future.
Our second day was from Paris to Arras was particularly linked to New Zealand, but we did have other most interesting points to visit.
A replica carriage to remember important events
Our first stop was at the Memorial de la Clairiere de l’Armistice – the Armistice carriage where the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.
This same carriage was used by Hitler to force the French to surrender in 1940. The carriage was then taken to Berlin where it was destroyed during the World War Two bombing raids.
The carriage we viewed was the same vintage and make as the original and has been set up as a very fine piece of history.
Strangely, the day the Armistice was signed was foggy and so it was when we visited.
It was eerie.
Arras where New Zealand tunnellers operated
We travelled on and had lunch at Arras. To see the town now, and knowing that it was almost totally destroyed by German shelling, it is amazing that the people have restored it to the way it was before the Great War.
This was possible because so many of the plans had been preserved and photographs really helped the rebuilding of the town.
After lunch we went to La Carriere Wellington at Arras – (Wellington Quarry Arras Tunnels) worked on by NZE Tunnelling Company.
Some of these tunnels have been made safe (well as safe as can be expected) as they are some 20 – 25 metres below ground.
The New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company did a lot of work in these caves and joined many up with tunnels between.
During the Great War there was a light railway of about 24 inch gauge, a six or eight inch water main, a 600 bed hospital and it was estimated that 20,000 men could be concealed from the Germans in these tunnels.
Some of the original electrical wiring can still be found with a stud finder, and there are some trucks used on the light railway still on site.
Wall signs and the visitors shop
There are quite a lot of interesting things that have been painted or drawn on the cave and tunnel walls.
Some are direction signs to the different tunnels which had been given New Zealand names such as Russell, Auckland, Wellington, Blenheim, Nelson and Christchurch.
There are “way out” and toilet signs, but some of the most interesting are some like the head of a soldier wearing a lemon squeezer.
When we came back up to the surface we looked round the visitors shop and I gave them a package of WW1 NZE badges and some other items for their display.
We then started to move back to our bus bur were asked by the Carriere Wellington staff to stand by the photograph wall of the sappers that worked here during WW1.
We did this and I took several photos of these pictures on the wall for the Royal New Zealand Engineers Museum at Linton. I am always looking for photos, articles and other ephemera for the RNZE Museum.
We then proceeded on our way to the next places to visit.