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Published by Lisa Truttman
Story of the Army Engineers who trained at Avondale 1915-1916
Story of the Army Engineers who trained at Avondale 1915-1916

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Published by: Lisa Truttman on Oct 27, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The "Avondale" Tunnellers
One of the oldest stories told by long-time Avondale residents to their children, and toanyone else who asks, is about the Avondale Racecourse and its legendary drainagecapabilities. My mother would often tell me that the Jockey Club hardly evercancelled a meeting because of the racecourse drainage, the “tunnels left under theracecourse,” ensuring the former raupo swamp wouldn’t turn into a muddy bog.Despite accounts to the contrary, ambulances on duty so splattered with mud that theywere no longer white, the story of the tunnels beneath the racecourse persists. Eventhe
Challenge of the Whau
, in referring to recollections published in the AvondaleJockey Club’s centennial history, perpetuated the myth.
The original track was more elliptical than the present one and, according to Mr  Marshall, the original outlets of the tunnels are still showing strong water flows after heavy rain. These are situated between the 400-metre and 600-metre pegs and between the 1200-metre and 1400-metre, but closer to the 1400-metres. Mr Marshall says that up to 400 men were in the Tunnelling Company and theyworked night and day shifts with 100 men in a shift. He says it is believed that soil from the tunnels was dumped from the present 1200metres along the turn, which not only improved the track, but was an early example of soil conservation.
Unfortunately the tunnels beneath the centre of the Avondale Racecourse are a myth.The military company legends gave credit to for digging the tunnels, the New ZealandTunnelling Company of Engineers back in October to December of 1915, were notencamped on the racecourse to learn how to dig tunnels.They didn’t need to. They were already, in the main, seasoned miners, prospectorsand labourers from the goldfields of the country, principally the north half of theNorth Island, including Auckland itself. They became a footnote to New Zealand’smilitary history, and a tantalising tale from the history of an Auckland suburb’s semi-
rural days, who in fact were part of a history even more fascinating than the legendsby which they are best remembered.
World War One and tunnelling
The classic images of World War One are those of trenches cut into the Frenchcountryside, the Allies and the German’s facing each other with only “no-man’s land”in between, on fields of endless mud. Below ground, however, a special type of warwent on, each side digging tunnels from their line beneath the mud and defencestoward the trenches of the enemy, with the intention of exploding the trenches, andthe occupants, to pieces. The underground war was initiated by the German side inlate 1914, and the British and French forces reacted by bringing in teams of men tospecialise in digging narrow chambers, barely the width of a man’s shoulders, withshovels braced between the legs and men behind the diggers crawling on their handsand knees to collect the spoil. Sewer workers from cities such as Manchester, forexample, were considered ideal for this kind of stifling, highly dangerous work.Where Allied and German tunnels intersected, bitter fighting would ensue, thewinners of these desperate conflicts having the privilege of blowing up the losingside’s tunnel.In the middle of 1915, reinforcements were called for, and the then Dominions of theBritish Empire responded: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In September 1915,the New Zealand Ministry of Defence issued an appeal for recruits, “only experiencedminers and tunnel men being required, and applications for commissions were calledfrom qualified Mining and Civil Engineers.”
 The call was for 400 men, 250 to be experienced “facemen”, miners by profession(but not coal miners, who were needed at home), the remaining 150 “less skilledworkers.” The men were different in other ways from the rest of the expeditionaryforces sent to the front in that war: the age of enlistment was from 21 to 40 years, butthe majority were aged closer to the upper end of that range than the lower. Theofficers had been drawn from the Public Works Department, as well as engineersfrom the private mining companies.
Avondale is chosen
Auckland had campaigned with the Ministry of Defence to have a training campcloser to the city for much of the war up to that point, the main training centre beingTrentham. Perhaps it was in order that Auckland be appeased that the Ministry lookedat areas in and around the Queen City – with Avondale Racecourse apparently beingchosen over Bastion Point and Ellerslie.Avondale in 1915 was still a semi-rural, “sleepy hollow” place, where motorisedtransport was only starting to appear; sporting only a handful of shops, most aroundthe five-roads intersection and the horse trough-lamp; the hotel long closed and nowthe Post Office; and the only source of amusement in town for men more used toliving rough out in the back blocks than the urban niceties of Auckland, being thebilliard saloon on the corner of Cracroft Street and Great North Road.J. C Neill, in his 1922 book on the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, suggests thatthe choice of Avondale Racecourse for the camp seemed at the time “the grossest of blunders.” The Defence authorities had chosen an open area, “within easy reach of New Zealand’s largest and gayest city.” There were to be a number of conflictsbetween the tunnellers and civilian authorities, many writers describing the companyas shaking up the near-by city of Auckland as it had never been shaken before.The Defence authorities favoured the racecourse grounds as suitable for the purposeof a camp because there were existing buildings and a good water supply. TheAvondale Jockey Club placed the entire grounds at the disposal of the government(this in spite of the enormous popularity of the race days there, so much so that trafficsped along New North Road on race days, and trains arrived at and left AvondaleStation packed with the racing faithful), and it was accepted on 22 September 1915 asthe camp’s site. Three days later, an advance party arrived to prepare the grounds,installing drainage to be used during the six weeks occupation (which, in the end,stretched to nine weeks). Here, perhaps, could be the reason for the durable legendregarding tunnels and drainage at the racecourse – could inquisitive Avondale

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