New Zealand honours its Great War tunnellers with new memorial

Posted on on 21 January 2016
Share |

Tribute is being paid to New Zealand's First World War tunnellers, with the dedication of a new memorial in the former mining town of Waihi.

Despite being the first New Zealand unit on the Western Front and the last off it, the men have had no memorial in their own country, say the project organisers.

But that changes on January 22nd  2016, with the inauguration of a 7.5 metre-high sculpture and memorial wall in Gilmour Reserve, Waihi, commemorating the soldiers of the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company (NZETC).

"We’re looking forward to a very special day when eight years of planning, fundraising and work by Waihi Heritage Vision members will come together," says project manager Sue Baker Wilson.

Descendants of tunnellers, as well as Australian and French representatives, will be among guests attending the ceremony. Guest-of-honour is Willie Apiata, a former New Zealand soldier awarded the Victoria Cross for rescuing a wounded comrade under fire in Afghanistan in 2004.


The distinctive T-shaped NZ Tunnelling Company memorial. The cupped hands surmounting the globe invoke supplication and peace (Photo courtesy New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company/Waihi Heritage Vision)

The memorial honours the mining engineers and mineworkers from across New Zealand who answered the call for tunnellers in 1915. Many were drawn from the goldfields in the Waihi area.

The New Zealand Tunnelling Company was among more than 30 British and Dominion tunnelling units serving in France by the end of 1916.

The New Zealanders are particularly remembered for using old underground quarries to construct a network of tunnels in the run-up to the Battle of Arras in April 1917.

Part of the system was named Wellington Quarry, after the country's capital. It's now a museum - La Carrière Wellington

All sides resorted to tunnelling beneath the lines as the First World War became increasingly deadlocked.

From the first small­scale operations by the French in the autumn of 1914, tunnelling developed into a web of increasingly complex operations.

The fighting underground culminated in one of the most dramatic attacks of the entire war in June 1917, when British and Commonwealth forces detonated almost 1,000,000 lbs (425,000 kgs) of explosives under the German lines at Messines Ridge in Belgium.

More information about the history of New Zealand's tunnellers and events honouring them in Waihi this weekend, including a day-long seminar, can be found on the NZETC website.

Information & images supplied by New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company/Waihi Heritage Vision project

Posted by: Peter Alhadeff, Centenary News