Cité Souterraine de Nours

A medieval underground city with a wartime past

The Medieval quarries of Naours, known as Cité Souterraine serves as an archaeological site presenting several phases of occupation, just as notable within the late 9th century as in the First World War. For centuries, the region of Picardy saw war and invasion, leaving locals to seek protection in the deep quarries that were originally in use for the extraction of chalk. The quarries began to house villagers, their goods, livestock, and crops in the event of conflict, becoming subsurface refuges, gaining interior functionalities of daily living- chapels, cooking areas, livestock and grain storage, latrines, and other various necessities. Sometime between the late 17th century (after the Thirty Year’s War 1618-148) and late 19th century, the quarry refuge went unused and relatively forgotten about until it was rediscovered an examined by the Ernest Danicourt in 1887 (citesouterrainedenaours.fr 2018). Here, he found several chambers for food storage, with the remains of corn being found in one of them, along with over a dozen gold coins dating to the reign of Charles VI and Louis XIV. 


With the start of the First World War, the souterrain at Naours became a popular ‘tourist’ attraction for the soldiers billeted in the area. One of the signatures on the quarry walls reads ‘Wilfred Joseph Allan Allsop’ dating to 2 January 1917- his diary entry of the same date reads; 


“At 1 p.m. 10 of us went to the famous Caves near Naours where refugees used to hide in times of Invasion. These Caves contain about 300 rooms, one cave being ½ mile long. A whole Division of troops 20,000 could be accommodated here, horses, artillery etc. The names of John Norton & Eva Pannett are to be seen autographed on a stone just inside the entrance.”

- W. J. A. Allsop 


The Cité Souterraine still remains a tourist attraction just as it did during the war. Visitors are lead through the underground system through a self-operated audio-guide.

'Moulin' drawing and soldier's graffiti on the walls of the underground chapel.

'Moulin' drawing and soldier's graffiti on the walls of the underground chapel.

Carrière Wellington de Arras

Medieval quarries bringing soldiers to the front

  

Compared to Cité Souterraine at Naours, the Carriére Wellington held greater war-time ‘action’ within its stone-carved walls. Like those at Naours, Carriére Wellington is a Medieval chalk quarry, first built between the 12th and 13th centuries.  and located just below the town of Arras. The town was directly behind the frontline and under considerable artillery fire from the German forces during the war. In order to protect the billeted troops in the town, they turned to the Medieval quarries that ran directly below. From the very beginning of the war, French soldiers occupied the quarries as an underground shelter. By 1916, the nearby frontlines were taken over by the British Army- largely that of the Commonwealth with troops from New Zealand tunnelling company- and, they too,  turned to the centuries old quarries, extending them by creating connective tunnels and others to bring the troops directly to the frontline without the risk of gunfire. 


Whereas to Cité Souterraine at Naours has a greater focus on the pre-war history and archaeology of the site, today’s reports of Carriére Wellington favour its role during WW1, often overshadowing its role through history. It is assumed, however, that it too was used for shelter and protection for the locals in Arras when under attack, as the region was known for attacks from the Saxon and invaders over the border, as well as being an area of violence through the Thirty Year’s War. How aware these soldiers were of the caves’ archaeological origins is not quite clear, though the mark they left on this early medieval subterranean complex is ever apparent. All along the walls, these men have left inscriptions- their names, rank and date; drawings of their sweethearts (seen in the image to the right); and written signs upon the wall to direct those within its maze. In addition to the men’s memory left on the walls, various re-furnishings were added and altered the interior- kitchens, showers, latrines, and a hospital. 


Carriére Wellington is now a visitor centre and underground guided museum. Guided groups will be led down to its caverns and walk through the Great War history that took place within the chalk dugouts.

Graffiti drawing of a soldier's sweetheart on the quarry walls.

Graffiti drawing of a soldier's sweetheart on the quarry walls.

Chateau-de-Coucy

A grand medieval castle occupied and left in ruins

  

Chateau-de-Coucy is a prominant 13th/14th century castle. From 1914 to 1916,  the German troops occupied the castle, which at the time, was still in relatively ruined state but habitable nonetheless . In September of 1916, however, the German position began to shift- In engaging Operation Alberich, the Germans began to consolidate its lines of defence around the Hindenburg line that extended over 160km from Lens to Reims. By February 1917, the Aisne saw a withdrawal of the German troops. They destroyed the areas they previously occupied villages so that the French may not use the valuable posts left behind- this included the Chateau de Coucy. In March 1917, the castle was destroyed by setting nearly forty tons of dynamite throughout the structure. The German view on the destruction of the Chateau de Coucy was that of regretful necessity. Paul Clement, a German art historian, (1919) states that the German preservationists, particularly the German architect and historiam Bodo Ebhardt, were struggling to keep its conservation and that the troops stationed in its walls were willing to comply and ensure it was not mishandled. However, this could not override the authoritative decision to destroy the castle for tactical reasons. Clement marks is as ‘a hard decision- and for us [the Germans] a bitter truth’. Even still, however, the French troops stayed in the ruins of the castle after the German retreat, from March 1917 to April 1918, as some of the structure was spared from complete destruction and still habitable. Today, the castle remains in a ruined state, though even through its destruction, several of its towers still stand at an imposing height and its original glory can be seen in the hints of what is left. 

 

Today, the Chateau serves as a tourist attraction- visitors can enter the chateau ruins and be surprised how vast the structure that still remains is. Go into ruined towers and underground halls, going back in time to both its medieval period and perhaps what the German troops witness in their time spect on its grounds.

Chateau-de-Coucy

Chateau-de-Coucy

Butte De Warlencourt

An ancient burial mound survives No Man's Land

  

The Butte de Warlencourt, located along the Roman road between the towns of Albert and Bapaume, is an ancient burial mound, likely of a Gallic Chieftain during the Gallo-Roman period. Lying within No Man’s Land, it became a symbol of reference and objective during the Battle of the Somme. The mound saw significant damage throughout the war, as it was ‘pitted and scarred’ by shellfire, and riddled with dugouts sheltering machine gunners taking advantage of its dominating position on the battlefield. 


The Butte is mentioned by a number of soldiers, both in text and often in art as well. The mound is both written about and drawn in William Orpen’s book An Onlooker In France, seen as a symbol of beauty within the ruins of No Man’s Land. He describes it as ‘…beautiful in the afternoon light that summer. Pale gold against the eastern sky with the mangled remains of trees and houses’ of Le Sars on the left. While Orpen, a known artist, saw the ancient mound as a source of beauty amongst the surrounding destruction, others record the butte as an objective in attack and in more tactical terms. Historian and soldier, C. R. M. F. Cruttwell recounts that his battalion, the 1/4th of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, were to make an attack on the butte in mid-November 1916- that they travelled east along the ancient road facing the 15 metre high burial mound as their objective. He goes on to mention its tactical position for machine ginners hidden within dugouts of the mound. Cruttwell does well to include both its military role and its archaeological context. Captain Francis Buckley, who has proved his archaeological interest and abilities above with his recordings of various prehistoric flint tools found near the town of Coigneux, surprisingly does not express the same interests towards the archaeological context of the Butte de Warlencourt, when he uses it as a directional reference within the landscape, writing ‘The Germans opposite our trenches were not disposed to be unfriendly about the New Year. On the left of the Butte they signalled to our men in the trenches before a trench-mortar bombardment started, as to warn them to take cover. On the right they were still more inclined to fraternise’ .


Today you can visit the Butte de Warlencourt, where a set of stars will bring you to the top of the ancient burial mound as you look out over what used to be a vast No Man's Land.

Butte De Warlencourt (IWM)

Butte De Warlencourt (IWM)