It was hugely risky as the exploded tunnels would fill with deadly carbon monoxide. Another new memorial near Bapaume is dedicated to 41 tunnellers who died.

The British then planned a remarkable diversionary offensive against the Germans so the French could attack further south. A huge tunnel would be dug towards the enemy front line to enable a surprise attack literally under the Germans’ bootlaces.

So from October 1916, NZTC miners began cutting a 7km-long passageway linking long- lost medieval chalk caverns. They dug at an incredible speed creating an underground city, which at its height housed a railway network, water system and underground hospital. As they entered each medieval quarry, NZTC named them in geographical order after New Zealand towns: from New Plymouth to Auckland to Dunedin. And of course Wellington, the most accessible quarry, where the new €4 million visitors’ centre is due to open soon.

I got a sneak preview with local archaeologist Alain Jacques. Visitors will descend 40m into Wellington Quarry to the new visitor centre to watch a short film chronicling the Battle of Arras. They will then descend a further 20m in a glass elevator for an hour-long tour of the tunnels. Sounds of tunnel-construction and exploding artillery will fill the cavern as the story of the burrowing Kiwis and the eventual assault is re-told.

The tunnels are extraordinary. Only rediscovered in the early ’90s, original wartime artefacts have preserved this momentous period in aspic.

Alain is like a little kid.

“It’s so exciting to find history undisturbed,” he tells me.

“The first time we opened the tunnel we found boots, helmets, dog-tags and even bullets in an operating theatre that had been removed from wounded soldiers.”

They’ve also recorded 3000 separate pieces of graffiti.

A cool 11˚C inside, the cavern is actually a labyrinth marked with painted identifiers such as ‘4B’ or ‘5A’ to guide the battalions to the front line. A sign on one wall points towards ‘Nelson’ and ‘Blenheim’. The tunnels are also surprisingly broad. “The Maoris built big tunnels over two metres high,” comments Alain, “whereas you have to stoop to get through the British-built ones.”

At some junctions tunnels branch off towards the front line: a perfectly preserved railway cart points down a 300m passageway towards Russell Quarry. But Alain tells me it’s no longer possible to reach the front line as underground constructions such as car parks have sealed the route forever.

The camaraderie that must have existed is palpable. Above one cave etched ‘Waitomo’ is pure gallows humour as graffiti reads: ‘Wanted, one housekeeper’. There are artistic charcoal murals: one a woman’s portrait – perhaps a wartime sweetheart. And making this so real I read on one wall: ‘Shannahan 21445 NZET 8/12/16 – 8/4/17’.

“He survived the war,” says Alain, who traced Private Shannahan back to Wellington where he’d died in the 1920s.

Maybe Shannahan witnessed mass at Wellington’s stone-carved altar ministered to the 2nd Suffolk regiment on the eve of the battle. Next day, April 9, 1917, 24,000 troops poured through the Kiwis’ completed tunnel to surprise the German lines, pushing them backwards for two days. One of the bloodiest battles of World War I ensued, with 4000 Commonwealth lives being claimed daily. No Kiwi troops were involved in the assault but the greatest success emerged when the Canadian Corps stormed the strategically vital Vimy Ridge. Their 7000 dead of April 9 are remembered at Vimy’s dramatic memorial, which shouldn’t be missed.

The Arras tourist office is anticipating some 70,000 visitors, many from New Zealand and Australia, to visit Wellington Quarry during the first year.

Just as Gallipoli has become a major annual pilgrimage, so this place should too. The NZTC’s brave Kiwi miners deserve their place in the sun.