Remembering the tunnellers of Arras

The Earth Remembers
Carrière Wellington, Arras, France

Last month a new monument to New Zealanders involved in the Battle of Arras was unveiled in France at the Carrière Wellington, Arras. This unveiling ceremony commemorated the men from many nations including New Zealand who fought in the Battle of Arras in 1917.

The monument, The Earth Remembers, was created and designed by Marian Fountain, a New Zealand artist resident in France

The Battle of Arras lasted from April 9 to May 16, 1917, British and Commonwealth troops suffering about 160,000 casualties and the German Sixth Army 125,000.

Commissioned by the NZ Lottery Grants Board and the City of Arras, it is dedicated to the memory of the men of the New Zealand Tunneling Company for their work in the underground quarries of Arras during the war. The walls of the quarries are marked with the names of New Zealand towns and cities and the names of many of the men.

The painted bronze sculpture, 3.3m high, represents a section of the Arras quarries carved out and the silhouette of a New Zealand tunneller wearing a lemon squeezer hat. The monument is topped by a section of soil with grass growing on it. 

The space within the monument is a symbolic tunnel, featuring small images of some of the men and excerpts from their letters.

At the top of the monument is an opening which replicates one of the exit points from the tunnels. This opening, which is oriented toward the rising sun, is intended to evoke the departure of the 24,000 soldiers at dawn on April 9, 1917.

Initially, there were about 1000 New Zealand tunnellers serving on the Western Front, drawn from many of the mining towns of New Zealand. They were joined by members of the Maori Pioneer Battalion digging 20km of tunnels in the chalk quarries of Arras.

This sculpture is like a section of soil representing one of the thousands of graves found in grassed cemeteries in the area, and is a recognition that the people of Arras have lived and grown up on the land which bears the memory of a collective history, and that the graves have been carefully looked after all these years.

The artist sees the space within the monument as important. "The 'gap' of the soldier makes us think of the loss these men's families and communities endured at home in New Zealand. When we come here to remember, we are touched to the core. We look at these men who look at us – we are now the actors on the stage, the descendants in the gap: the living key to maintaining peace.”

Two small maquettes of the work are on show at Artis Gallery in the exhibition Upheaval – Reconstruct exhibition of Medal Artists New Zealand, The Earth Remembers $5800 (edition of 8) and a smaller version at $850 (edition of 100).