Originally mined for chalk to build the French town of Arras, the huge network of 200-year-old underground quarries was rediscovered in September 1916.
The New Zealand tunnellers were tasked with linking and extending these old quarries in preparation for a major Allied attack on the Germans. The quarried spaces were designed to secretly house Allied troops before they took on the enemy in the Battle of Arras.
The network of tunnels remains one of the best-preserved traces of New Zealand’s contribution to the First World War in Europe and bears tantalising glimpses into the lives of three Cook Islands men who served in Arras during World War One.
Two are known to have left their names in the Arras caverns. By doing so, Corporal Solomon Isaacs (aka Issacs) and Private Angene Angene have helped ensure that the story of a small group of Cook Islanders who served on the Western Front is remembered.
The third Cook Islander was Private Tau Kopungaiti of Oneroa, Mangaia. His next of kin when he enlisted is recorded as his adoptive father Miria.
Kopungaiti was in Arras only a few weeks before being sent to Field Ambulance on Christmas Day, 1916. He was then transferred to hospital. It is likely that because of ill health and the brief time he was in Arras, that Tau may never had time to inscribe his name on the cavern walls as did his two comrades from home.
Tau never returned to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force Tunneling Company. He embarked to New Zealand on October 27, 1917 and was declared too unwell for further service. The harsh winter and conditions in the Arras tunnel had taken its toll on this young man from the islands.
Angene was 19 when he enlisted in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands on September 29, 1915. His military file shows he signed papers written in his own language as well as recording in English on his Attestation Form that he worked for himself on his own land. Solomon Isaacs was 20. He was born in Aitutaki. He was working in Auckland when he enlisted.
Both men were amongst the 47 Cook Islanders attached to A Company, 3rd Maori Contingent.
They were the first group of Cook Island men to serve overseas in WW1 and the only group of Cook Islanders who would serve in France.
On February 5, 1916 they embarked for Suez, disembarking on March 15. Here they became part of the newly formed NZ Pioneer Battalion, an infantry unit trained to carry out labouring duties required by the army.
In early April, they were deployed to France. Despite concerns about sending Pacific Islanders to a cold climate, it was felt that the onset of spring would be warm enough for them. It turned out that the French spring of 1916 was particularly cold. An extremely cold winter would follow.
By the time Isaacs and Angene arrived in Arras to assist the tunnelers they had been on the Western Front for eight months, summer had turned to autumn then a winter that was debilitating for the Cook Islanders. Many suffered terribly from the extreme cold. Deaths occurred. While more men were accepted from the Cook Islands, no further contingents would be sent to France.
Angene had departed for war from the tropical shores of Rarotonga. Nothing could have prepared him for the wintery snow conditions he would face on the Western Front. By early September 1916 he was reported as being dangerously ill with pneumonia.
Both Angene and Isaacs were in Rouen hospital at the same time and both were sent to Brockenhurst and Codford hospitals in England before returning to France to resume working in the Arras Tunnel.
The Arras caves were reported to be full of poisonous fumes from underground gas. The foul air, cold, damp and lack of ventilation left once strong men permanently afflicted. While it was still cold and damp, at least working in the underground caverns would have sheltered Angene and Isaacs from the bitterly cold winter winds and snow above ground.
Discovered in recent times inscribed on the wall of the Arras Tunnel is the Lord’s Prayer written in the Tahitian language. It is believed that the Lord’s Prayer was written by Isaac and Angene to comfort them and give them strength. This connection has been made due to the fact that the Cook Islands Bible of that period was written in the Tahitian language and Angene and Isaac would have been Christians. Isaacs and Angene left to rejoin the Pioneer Battalion on February 26, 1917.
Four days before Angene left the caverns forever, he inscribed on the walls; NZRB 16/1205 Alick Angene 22.2.17. Isaacs also left his name behind.
A few years after the Arras caverns were rediscovered a shell was found near a pillar where Angene had inscribed his name.
In the 1997 Journey to Arras documentary, Tunnelling Company descendant Clare Mashiter picks up the shell, holds it to her ear and “listens to the ocean”.
The shell, a hexaplex is not found in the Cook Islands. It is common on the Atlantic coast of Europe, Africa and Mediterranean Sea. It is possible Angene picked up the shell from somewhere and kept it as a reminder of his warm tropical home and beaches.
Did he leave it behind as a gift to the Arras Tunnel and the hope it would be found one day and the connection made? When Angene and Isaacs departed the Western Front in January 1918 they left behind in Arras an enduring story of their time working alongside the tunnellers.
Angene and Isaacs survived the war and both spent their last days on their home islands – Angene in Tupapa, Rarotonga and Isaacs in Tautu, Aitutaki.
Solomon Isaacs was discharged with pneumonia and bronchitis and had only a few years left to enjoy. Isaacs returned to his home island Aitutaki and married Teremoana Tikiteina. They had one son, Solomona Junior Solomona before Isaacs passed away in 1923.
Isaacs’ descendants today include grandsons Isaac Solomona and Teariki Solomona and grandaughter Tepora Solomona. Angene is said to have been married four times, and had many children. He died in Rarotonga in 1953 and is buried in his village of Tupapa.
We honour these Cook Island men who helped prepare the tunnels used to house men and which took soldiers right through to no-man’s land and the Battle of Arras.
- Florence Syme-Buchanan
(Excerpts from In the Arras Tunnels, URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/arras-tunnels-today, (NZ Ministry for Culture and Heritage).