The "Avondale" Tunnellers

One of the oldest stories told by long-time Avondale residents to their children, and to anyone else who asks, is about the Avondale Racecourse and its legendary drainage capabilities. My mother would often tell me that the Jockey Club hardly ever cancelled a meeting because of the racecourse drainage, the “tunnels left under the racecourse,” 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 they were no longer white, the story of the tunnels beneath the racecourse persists. Even the Challenge of the Whau, in referring to recollections published in the Avondale Jockey 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 they worked 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 1200 metres along the turn, which not only improved the track, but was an early example of soil conservation. 1 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 Zealand Tunnelling Company of Engineers back in October to December of 1915, were not encamped on the racecourse to learn how to dig tunnels.

They didn’t need to. They were already, in the main, seasoned miners, prospectors and labourers from the goldfields of the country, principally the north half of the North Island, including Auckland itself. They became a footnote to New Zealand’s military 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 legends by which they are best remembered.

World War One and tunnelling The classic images of World War One are those of trenches cut into the French countryside, 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 war went on, each side digging tunnels from their line beneath the mud and defences toward the trenches of the enemy, with the intention of exploding the trenches, and the occupants, to pieces. The underground war was initiated by the German side in late 1914, and the British and French forces reacted by bringing in teams of men to specialise in digging narrow chambers, barely the width of a man’s shoulders, with shovels braced between the legs and men behind the diggers crawling on their hands and knees to collect the spoil. Sewer workers from cities such as Manchester, for example, were considered ideal for this kind of stifling, highly dangerous work.

Where Allied and German tunnels intersected, bitter fighting would ensue, the winners of these desperate conflicts having the privilege of blowing up the losing side’s tunnel.

In the middle of 1915, reinforcements were called for, and the then Dominions of the British Empire responded: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In September 1915, the New Zealand Ministry of Defence issued an appeal for recruits, “only experienced miners and tunnel men being required, and applications for commissions were called from qualified Mining and Civil Engineers.” 2

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 skilled workers.” The men were different in other ways from the rest of the expeditionary forces sent to the front in that war: the age of enlistment was from 21 to 40 years, but the majority were aged closer to the upper end of that range than the lower. The officers had been drawn from the Public Works Department, as well as engineers from the private mining companies.

Avondale is chosen Auckland had campaigned with the Ministry of Defence to have a training camp closer to the city for much of the war up to that point, the main training centre being Trentham. Perhaps it was in order that Auckland be appeased that the Ministry looked at areas in and around the Queen City – with Avondale Racecourse apparently being chosen over Bastion Point and Ellerslie.

Avondale in 1915 was still a semi-rural, “sleepy hollow” place, where motorised transport was only starting to appear; sporting only a handful of shops, most around the five-roads intersection and the horse trough-lamp; the hotel long closed and now the Post Office; and the only source of amusement in town for men more used to living rough out in the back blocks than the urban niceties of Auckland, being the billiard 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 that the 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 conflicts between the tunnellers and civilian authorities, many writers describing the company as 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 purpose of a camp because there were existing buildings and a good water supply. The Avondale 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 traffic sped along New North Road on race days, and trains arrived at and left Avondale Station packed with the racing faithful), and it was accepted on 22 September 1915 as the 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 legend regarding tunnels and drainage at the racecourse – could inquisitive Avondale

residents, fascinated by this very different novelty in their midst, have mistaken the advance party’s work as the tunnelling they believed had taken place there?

For some reason, recruiting was suspended for a few days on 28 September, only to be resumed two days later. Perhaps due to their specialised nature, it was arranged that the Tunnelling Corps of Engineers was to be attached to the Royal Engineers on arrival later in England, but still receive New Zealand rates of pay and pensions. In early October, there were hearty farewells in small centres such as Waihi and Thames for the men leaving to join the camp. A total of 254 men came from the Auckland Province, from Whangarei to Thames, Waihi and Hamilton (20 over quota), with 75 from Canterbury and Otago, and 90 from Wellington.

The company is composed of an exceedingly useful body of men and this fact was demonstrated yesterday, when the full establishment of four blacksmiths, four carpenters, two fitters, three clerks, two draughtsmen, two electricians, two bricklayers, two plumbers, four cooks, two medical orderlies, two sanitary and water duty men, and a shoemaker, mason and tinsmith were supplied from the ranks…. There are in the ranks four fully qualified civil engineers – one gave up a practice worth over £500 a year, – overseers of Government works, mechanical engineers from railway workshops, foreman of county councils, men from the Auckland University and School of Mines, skilled miners, who were earning up to £6 and £7 a week, and road and bush contractors who at times made as many pounds sterling in a week as they will get shillings from the camp paymaster. 3

Given the above range of skills (the only one missing that the company might require, so it is said, was that of tailor), it is now little wonder that the New Zealand Tunnellers were able to achieve so much during the war. The Camp Major J. E. Duigan was the general staff officer for the camp, with the following administrative officers: Captain Neville Newcomb, camp commandant; Captain D. J. Sweetzer, adjutant; and Captain W. H. Feldon as quartermaster. The camp they oversaw, a sea of the then-regulation British Bell tents, was well described by the Auckland Star as having a cookhouse with hot water for cooking and other “culinary

requirements”; marquee tents so the men could eat meals together rather than in separate tents alone as was usually the case; every tent fitted with floorboards; and showers fitted with that adequate new drainage the locals in Avondale may have thought were the start of the soon-to-be legendary

The whole of the drainage system has been overhauled, and where necessary extended to various portions of the grounds. 4

To help provide for the leisure needs of the men, the Salvation Army and Y.M.C.A. set up tents with writing and reading materials, the camp canteen was operated by Bollard & Wood, the local grocery merchants from the Page Building in Avondale, while the local barber shop (including the billiard saloon) was run by Mr. W. McArthur. “Town prices,” the Star declared on 5 October, “will rule.” There was even a temporary picture theatre set up on site, run by a Mr. J. Lack, who also had the licence to take photographs to sell to the troops to send to the folks back home.

Attached to the company was a medical officer and two medical orderlies belong to the N.Z.M.C., and nineteen motor and horse drivers from the N.Z.A.S.C. 5

In the beginning of November, the men were inoculated by the camp medical officer, Captain Gordon.

It was found during a preliminary inspection of the men by the appointed dental surgeon Capt. E. C. Winstone that very few had teeth in good enough condition to chew the hard army food they would find served to them in France. Arrangements were made to have a dozen members of the Auckland Dental Institute perform free checks on the men, then a number of dentists visited the camp to do extractions and fillings. At a later inspection of the camp, the Minister of Defence was impressed with the suitability and completeness of the arrangements made for treatment of dental troubles. Captain Winstone and Lieutenant Phillips are in charge of this important work, and the records showed that up to date [24 November] there have been 624 fillings, 411 extractions, and 87 other cases. Over 90 plates are now being made for men in the camp. 6

The instruction staff for the men were Sergeant-Instructor A. Robertson, N.Z.P.S., sergeant-major; with Staff-Sergeants-Major A.C. Jameson and D. F. Hopkins acting as instructors. It was felt at the time that as the men were “experts in the class of work for which they were called up,”

that there was no need for technical training, as in

learning how to dig tunnels and use the equipment of the day. Here is another reason why the local legend of the tunnels underneath the racecourse is false. Instead, the men, “most of them strangers to military matters,” were taught squad drill, without arms, learning to take orders, and routine duties. Lectures will be given on saluting, dress, military law, health and sanitation, camp sanitation, and other subjects, and the syllabus of training generally has been drawn up to make men already efficient in an important phase of modern warfare, smart in their movements, and soldierly in appearance. 8

J. C. Neill wrote of the days at the Avondale camp:

The training at Avondale was on ordinary infantry lines, the Tunnellers were over age to have benefited by the territorial system so it had to begin very much on elementals.

Early morning physical “jerks” with a gallop round the racecourse followed by six hours marching and countermarching in the blazing Auckland sun had a wonderful effect in renewing the youth of many an old work stiffened toiler. Of course at first they did not like it, they had enlisted to work, not to prance around on a parade ground, but very soon they entered into the spirit of the thing, they were so very anxious not to be left behind through any want of fitness.

It was really wonderful too how these men, drawn from the most independent class on earth, willingly and cheerfully surrendered to military discipline. They saw that it was necessary and that it was just and made no haggle over accepting it. The food was good and more than abundant and when the tents became flooded they slept equally well in the grandstand and tote-house. In after days the Tunnellers looked back on those days as perhaps the pleasantest in their military experience. 9

It is interesting to note that out of the first 37 days in camp, 25 were reported in papers of the time to be rained out. This may have been the reason why the duration of the training camp extended beyond the planned six weeks, to ten.

By the 4th of November, the men received rifles and began musketry exercises. “Sabulite” grenade testing The Tunnelling Company were chosen by the government to test a new type of grenade on 19 October at the racecourse camp. The tests were for hand grenades, filled with a locally-made explosive called “sabulite” (normally used in the mining industry), spherically shaped and about the size of a cricket ball, weighing between 2 ¼ lb and 2 ½ lb. The internal cast iron segmenting was designed to ensure that the grenade, on detonation in the enemy trench, didn’t just explode into splinters, but instead sizeable fragments, some cubed in shape.

Earlier, in late September, the first tests were carried out in Wellington, using grenades thrown into practice trenches. In the objectively bloodless language of the time, military officials reported that “so severe was the concussion, owing to the strength of the explosive used, that it alone would be sufficient to incapacitate any men that might be in the trench when the grenade exploded.” 10

At Avondale, the tunnellers dug a couple of trenches a short distance apart, and threw the “bombs” from one trench into the other, where several pieces of board had been placed. … after two bombs had found their mark nearly every piece of timber had several holes through it. … “Nobody would have been left alive in that trench,” said one of the officers as he inspected the damage.

It was intended at the time that the grenades be manufactured locally, at a moderate cost. At the time of writing I’ve been unable to find out what became of the “Sabulite grenade”. The sly groggers see a profit Avondale was in 1915 a “dry” district, in that no licenses for public houses, bars or liquor selling had been granted in the area since 1908 when the electors voted, along

with the rest of West Auckland, along the lines of temperance. This may have been another factor in the decision to site the camp in Avondale, perhaps the distance being considered too great for these members of the Expeditionary Forces to come under the temptation of “demon drink” as had already been the case at the main camp at Trentham. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. In August 1915, one Harry Turnbull came to Avondale, and set up a fish shop in the town. According to testimony before Mr. F. V. Frazer, S.M., Turnbull had a “friend in the camp” who could not keep whiskey and beer for himself there, so Turnbull took it upon himself to supply from his fish shop. He claimed that he didn’t wish to take any money for the alcohol from the soldiers who came into the shop, but took it anyway after they insisted. He claimed before the magistrate that he had “very little liquor out at his shop”, but the constables who raided the shop with a search warrant after a complaint from camp officers and a trip in disguise to the shop to buy alcohol with a real soldier, stated that, in fact, “his shop was fitted up like a miniature bar, with glasses on the counter and in the back room.” The police found “a number of empty beer and whisky bottles strewn about.”

Turnbull was later sentenced to one month’s hard labour, not for being without a licence, but for selling liquor to uniformed members of the Expeditionary Force. Harry Turnbull was not the only one to take advantage of what must have been a golden opportunity to resell alcohol, and sometimes the watered down equivalent, to the thirsty out-of-towners in the Tunnelling Company. On Sundays, two “sly groggers” named Walter Barrett and James Smith did a roaring trade “in the shadow of St Patrick’s Cathedral” selling whiskey “of the kind sold in hotels on week-days at 6/- a bottle,” for 8/- a bottle.” 13 Final leave At the end of the fifth week in camp, 250 men were granted what was termed “final leave” and, curiously, loaded onto a train at Avondale and taken straight to Wellington. 14 However, there was at least one disturbance in downtown Auckland. … a police constable received a rough handling by two members of the Avondale Tunnelling Company … at the corner of Queen and Custom Streets on Saturday night. While on duty in Queen Street at

about forty minutes past nine o’clock Constable J. J. Healey took exception to the behaviour of two soldiers in uniform. He spoke to them, and it is stated that they at once became very abusive. A crowd collected. 15 According to the Auckland Star, the two soldiers had made themselves “objectionable to women”, accosting two women, who pushed past them, and then “tried their blandishments on three other respectable women, who would also have nothing to do with them”. interfered. According to the police one of the men took up a pugilistic attitude, and the constable proceeded to arrest him on a charge of being disorderly while drunk. The constable received a heavy blow on the jaw, and the attack was followed by blows delivered from behind. He managed to retain his grip on his prisoner, and endeavoured to get him to a taxicab. The surging of the crowd forced the policeman and his prisoner in another direction. Constable J. Hollick arrived and rendered assistance, but the efforts of the two men and the crowd were too much for the police. The men escaped. The constables did not use their batons. Constable Healey was considerably bruised about the face, head, and body, but was not incapacitated. 17 The two men were arrested at the Avondale camp the next day after parade, one later charged in the Police Court with being disorderly while drunk, resisting the police, and assault, the other with obstructing the police while in the execution of their duty, and with assaulting the police. Rather than send them to gaol for three days of their final leave, the magistrate instead fined them 20/- each. This was apparently not an isolated incident, the court referring to other cases of drunken soldiers from the company accosting women. Despite incidents such as these, however, the Minister of Defence, the Hon. James Allen commented, on inspection of the camp on 24 November, that he “considered that the discipline of the men reflected much credit on the officers responsible for their training.” 18

When they tried stopping two more women, the constable then

The Company leaves Auckland On the 12th December, Dr. Averill, the Anglican Bishop of Auckland, held a morning service at the camp. In a short address the Bishop expressed his pleasure at being able to say a few words to such a fine corps on the eve of its departure. He urged the men to uphold the honour of their country wherever they might be sent, not less in friendly communities than in the fighting line.

The New Zealand Tunnelling Corps of Engineers left Avondale finally on 18 December 1915. Sadly, J. C. Neill noted that, in his opinion, “the only enthusiasm the citizens (of Auckland) showed to the company was when they bade it farewell.” 20 The day before, relatives and friends of the tunnellers visited them at Avondale, and a presentation of gifts was made to the company: a cheque for £342 13/6 “to be used as a regimental fund, forwarded by the former fellow-workers of the tunnellers throughout the Dominion”; the Countess of Liverpool (wife of the Governor-General) forwarded a gramophone; and Mrs H B Morton sent a “number of articles likely to be useful to the men”. Two officers who had both been married during the time of the camp were given several gifts by their fellow officers at the officers’ last mess in Avondale. 21 At about three o’clock, Saturday 18th December, the company marched up Queen Street to Grey’s statue (near present day Aotea Square) from where they had formed up alongside the S.S. Ruapehu on the docks, then returned after the farewell to the ship and embarked for the long journey to England. The civic reception outside the Town Hall was witnessed by crowds of people, according to the New Zealand Herald, farewelling just over 400 men heading for the distant war front half a world away. The journey to the Arras caverns The New Zealanders reached Plymouth Harbour, England, on 3 February 1916, travelling to Falmouth for just over a month’s further infantry training. On 7 March, they left for France, arriving at Maroeuil on 15 March, relieving the 7/1 French

Territorial Engineers the next day. This was a section of the front line known as the Labyrinth, about 3 miles north of Arras. This was to give the New Zealanders their first taste of the British way of tunnel warfare, complete with geophones used to listen in on the underground earthworks of the enemy. J. C. Neill gives a very detailed account of the Company, much of which I will only summarise here. Other sources speak of the strikingly independent attitude shown by the New Zealanders in France at this time. They were noted, from time to time, as failing to properly salute officers of the British Army, while their language also left an indelible impression. Lofty and a chap named Collins were working it and Leith was filling the sandbags. I took the officer down and, getting to the face, Lofty was picking in hard ground. The officer said, “Do you think Fritz can hear you?” Quick as lightning came the reply from Lofty: 'They'll have to be bloody f-----g deaf if they can't.” That satisfied the officer that it was no place for him and he left straight away, saying, “Fearful language your men use.” He didn't ask to go down again. 22 On 30 March, they were in turn relieved at the Labyrinth by the 185th Tunnelling Company of Royal Engineers, and were then transferred to the Chanticleer front, the trench system on the eastern outskirts of Arras, staying there for the next two years. It was at Arras that the New Zealanders abandoned the Royal Engineers’ method of tunnel, switching to a more “Kiwi version” -- a typical New Zealand gallery, according to Neill, would be 6 feet by 3 feet 6 inches wide, for “decent room to swing a pick.”23 Here, also, the New Zealanders are credited with the discovery of old underground quarries, limestone caverns that been used to rebuild the city of Arras in the seventeenth century. Perhaps typically, the discovery was made while officers were amusing themselves while off duty. 24 Two definite cave systems were identified, with the New Zealanders developing and preparing one, the 184th Company of Royal Engineers the other. The New Zealanders gave the caverns along their line nostalgic names from home: Russell, Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Blenheim, Christchurch, Dunedin and Bluff. The caves were fitted with gas doors, ventilating

plant, electric light, running water and other facilities, serving eventually to shelter between 11,000 to 20,000 men during the cold winter months of the campaign known as the Battle of Arras. According to Sir Michael Hardie Boys, former Governor General of New Zealand, in a speech made in Auckland, 1998, he saw names and initials inscribed along the New Zealand tunnels under Arras, also a “rather fine Maori head sculpted into the wall, and other lasting signs of the many months our men lived and worked underground.” 25 The wide variety of practical skills in the New Zealand Company came to fore in many ways during the campaign, especially when, in June 1917 they took over the camp of the 184th Company and installed “a complete sawmill and workshops” where timber was prepared. The camp, according to J. C. Neill, even possessed “a quite passable tennis court”. 26 A canteen was set going and provided a considerable variety of goods at very reasonable prices; it was much patronized by the other troops in Arras, possibly on account of the excellent quality of the beer supplied! 27 Building bridges and the end of the war By August 1918, the N.C.O.’s from the company had been sent to the army bridging park at Rosel, gaining knowledge in the construction of army bridges. Neill considered that it was difficult to see why the company had been chosen to build bridges in those latter stages of the war, rather than the specialist Royal Engineers, but given the wide range of construction and engineering skills in the original main body, it is not such a surprise. The Tunnellers received orders on 23 September to prepare for the erection of the Havrincourt bridge, at the crossing of the Canal Du Nord. This bridge was reputed to be the longest single span bridge erected in military history to that time, at 240 feet, weighing 120 tons, involving a total of 104 working hours by 14 officers and 310 men. According to Neill, the company were honoured on the quick completion of the bridge by two visits from the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig., and received a commendation from the Engineer-in-Chief, G.H.Q.

The company went on to build other bridges, both just before and after the end of the war, at Masnieres, Cambrai, Solesmes, over the canal d’Escault, at St. Vaast, Pontsur-Sambre, and Mauberge. After demobbing procedures in France and the United Kingdom, the Tunnelling Company arrived back in Auckland Harbour at 9 p.m. on April 23rd, 1919, and the next day the company ceased to exist. On a local level, Avondale has the pride of knowing that these men first trained at the racecourse. They may not have dug the legendary tunnels that have been so much a part of Avondale’s collection of local lore. They may have been a source of stress for the civilian authorities of a more innocent Auckland unused to the realities of military training camps so close to the city. But these men, the main body who trained at Avondale, and the 5 reinforcement groups who came after them, served well in France, and are still today a fascinating part of the history of our country as a whole. Legends are one thing. But sometimes, as in the case of the “Avondale” Tunnellers, truth is grander than fiction. Sources and bibliography: The New Zealand Tunnelling Company 1915-1919, J. C. Neill, 1922 NZ Herald, September -- December 1915, Auckland Public Library Research Centre film record. Auckland Star, September – December 1915, Auckland Public Library Research Centre film record. Auckland Weekly News, September – December 1915, Auckland Public Library Research Centre film record. Highlights from One Hundred Years of Racing at Avondale Jockey Club, George Boyle, 1990 Challenge of the Whau, Avondale History Group, 1994 War Underground – The Tunnellers of the Great War, Alexander Barrie, Great Britain, 1962, 2000 Tunnellers – The Story of the Tunnelling Companies, Royal Engineers, during the World War, Capt. W. Grant Grieve and Bernard Newman, London, 1936

Cheerful Sacrifice – the Battle of Arras 1917, Jonathan Nicholls, London, 1995 Underground Troop Graffiti, Margo White (first published in New Zealand Listener, 19 April 1997). From Sweeny Vesty Limited website (1997), as sighted 13 July 2002. Speech by the Right Honourable Sir Michael Hardie Boys, at the Annual Diner of the Wellington College Old Boys’ Association, Auckland Branch, Auckland, 3 September 1998, from NZ Government Information website 1998-09-03.html, as sighted 13 July 2002.


Recollections of Mr. Howard Marshall, Highlights from One Hundred Years of Racing at Avondale Jockey Club, George Boyle, 1990, p. 33 2 J. C. Neill, The New Zealand Tunnelling Company 1915-1919, 1922, p.3 3 NZ Herald, 12 October 1915, p. 9 4 ibid 5 J. C. Neill, pp. 8-9 6 N Z Herald, 25 November 1915, p. 8 7 NZ Herald, 12 October 1915, p. 9 8 ibid 9 J. C. Neill, pp. 7-8 10 Auckland Star, 30 September 1915, p.18 11 Auckland Star, 19 October 1915, p. 7. 12 Auckland Star, 22 October 1915, p. 2 13 Auckland Star, 10 November 1915, p. 9 14 NZ Herald, 15 November 1915, p. 7 15 ibid., p. 3 16 Auckland Star, 15 November 1915, p. 4 17 NZ Herald, 15 November 1915, p. 3 18 NZ Herald, 25 November 1915, p. 8 19 Auckland Star, 13 December 1915, p. 6 20 J. C. Neill, p. 6 21 N Z Herald, 18 December 1915, p. 6

Recollections of Jim Williamson (1948), as republished by Jonathan

Nicholls, Cheerful Sacrifice – the Battle of Arras, 1917, London, 1995, p. 21 23 J. C. Neill, p.38 24 Capt. W. Grant Grieve and Bernard Newman, Tunnellers – The Story of the Tunnelling Companies, Royal Engineers, during the World War, London, 1936, p. 156 25 Speech by the Right Honourable Sir Michael Hardie Boys, at the Annual Diner of the Wellington College Old Boys’ Association, Auckland Branch, Auckland, 3 September 1998, from NZ Government Information website 1998-09-03.html, as sighted 13 July 2002 26 J. C. Neill, pp. 95-96 27 ibid. p. 96