Almost 40 years ago, while I was researching my bestselling First War novel, Chalkhill Blue, I was sent to meet a solid, gruffly spoken little woman who was reputed to know more about the Western Front than anyone alive. Her name was Rose Coombs, a onetime radar operator and employee of the Imperial War Museum who was something of a legend amongst veterans of the war. For years she’d acted as an escort for First World War survivors (all in their eighties or their nineties) to the sites of their old trenches out in Flanders; the only places where they could recapture something of the living hell, the cameraderie and desperate levity that they shared with one another – and with Rose.
When we first met, Rose Coombs had recently retired to a small Sussex bungalow the walls and corridors of which were stacked from floor to ceiling with reference books and maps and photographs relating to the war. It was there that I discovered what the hero of my own book would be likely to have faced when he reached Arras on the Western Front – and what I saw astonished me! The 1917 map of the area which Rose unfolded for me on her kitchen table, showed something more like a decapitated ant-heap than a French city. In place of roads, a complicated network of tunnels wormed through the chalky soil from Arras through a chain of subterranean caverns to the front-line trenches in its western suburbs.
The beginnings of the system dated back to Roman times, when chalk was mined to build the city. Later, the cellars of the Grande Place, known as ‘boves’, had been connected with each other and the mines – and when in the third year of the war the Allies realised they could use the caves for a surprise offensive, it was decided to create a second city underground which would be large enough to conceal an army of up to 25,000 soldiers, and when the time was right to ditch them straight into the German lines.
From the spring of 1916, 500 miners from the New Zealand Division worked with Yorkshire miners round the clock to excavate the space they needed. Fitted with electric lighting, mains water and soyer stoves for heating, the subterranean city eventually included a 700-bed hospital, a sewer and an electric tramway to the front.
It was not until 1990 that sections of the Arras tunnels were reopened. But in the year Rose Coombs revealed them to me on her kitchen table they were still a relatively well-kept secret. It was claimed recently that the tunnels snaked through the chalk of Artois for as many as 12 miles. But Rose’s map showed more like 20 miles of them – some marked simply with numbers and initials such as BM67.25 – others offering bizarre directions, via New Oxford Street to India, Burma and Ceylon, or by way of Godley Avenue to Aukland, Guernsey, Gloucester Terrace and Aladdin’s Cave!
It would be good to report that when in April of 1917 the Allies finally surged from the tunnels to overrun the German trenches, the war was near its end. But in fact a German counter-offensive and a further 19 months of fighting were still to come before the Armistice was signed.
That was the larger picture. I used the Arras tunnels in my novel to point up the madness of a situation in which soldiers on opposing sides were able to converse. In Chalkhill Blue I have my hero emerging from a tunnel to the sound of a young German singing from the far side of a crater.
The singing stopped. For a full minute all they could hear was the metallic rattling of the wire, and then a young man’s voice. ‘Hello Tommy.’
They didn’t answer. The caves officer frowned and shook his head at Ned, beckoning him back into the tunnel. But Ned discovered that he wanted to shout back, to offer some kind of reassurance to that frightened boy. ‘Hello Jerry. You’re not a monster are you, and no more am I. We’re people who can sing as well, and dream of other times as you do…’
I read that passage to Rose Coombs for her approval. When she died 8 years later, they took her ashes to be scattered out in Flanders.