© Laon, Vue sur la Montagne Couronnée | Office de Tourisme du Pays de Laon

Hauts‑de‑France Frontier land

Understanding the secrets of underground shelter

The Medieval underground town in Laon, labyrinths created by New Zealand tunnelers in Arras, barracks for German and French soldiers beneath the Chemin des Dames, and a resting place for Australian soldiers in Naours. These are 4 immersive experiences waiting for you, beneath your very feet, in the 21st century.

Northern France _ Arras _ Wellington Quarry Museum © Office de Tourisme Arras Pays d'ArtoisNorthern France _ Arras _ Wellington Quarry Museum © Office de Tourisme Arras Pays d'Artois
©Northern France, Arras, Wellington Quarry Museum |Office de Tourisme Arras Pays d'Artois
Laon

Like an underground cathedral

At the top of the Montagne Couronnée, is a door in the citadel that leads to a labyrinth of underground galleries. You head beneath the town with a torch in your hand. Firmly set in the limestone walls and ceiling are gastropod fossils.

They remind us that, millions of years ago, Laon was under water. Later, development of the town would be directly connected to the local vineyards, and also to the quarries dug far into the depths of the mountain. That’s where the stones for the cathedral, Notre-Dame de Laon, came from!” explains Lucie, our guide-lecturer

explains Lucie, our guide-lecturer.

Along the way are Gallo-Roman grain silos, dungeons in the mediaeval belfry, and the highlight, a magnificent succession of illuminated archways, leading off as far as you can see. A magnificent underground cathedral. “It’s a line of fire between two of the citadel bulwarks. Behind each arch was a casemate where soldiers were stationed, ready to defend their fortress.”

After passing through the powder magazine, the tunnel leads up to the top of the citadel. The view is breath-taking. Situated on the top of a hill, the cathedral overlooks the whole surrounding area. In the distance you can make out the ridge between the Ailette valley, the Aisne valley and the Chemin des Dames, a critical location for the First World War.

Oulches-la-Vallée-Foulon

La Caverne du Dragon

an immersive underground museum

La Caverne du Dragon ( the dragon’s cave) is in a quarry that was shared by German and French soldiers during WW1, each side capturing and recapturing the place in turn, all living underground, practically billeting together, and all while battle raged above ground.

It was the Germans who gave the place the nickname of “Drachenhöhle” perhaps because of the seven doors that seemed to breathe machine gun fire. Underground, life was well organised with storage of food, munitions, and medical supplies. There was an operating theatre, a chapel and even working phones and electricity.

So, the two sides shared corridors, built separating walls, and lived in gloom and dampness. By stimulating all 5 senses, the history lesson becomes more concrete, more real, and captures children’s attention.

After this trip into the past, it feels good to catch your breath outside on the lush, green, peaceful slopes of the plain. There, to stand in the middle of the Constellation of Suffering, a work of art by Christian Lapie, comprising nine giant statues in tribute to the Senegalese Tirailleurs who fell in 1917 during the battle of the Chemin des Dames. An emotional place that is not to be missed.

Arras

The Wellington Tunnels

experience the greatest surprise attack of the First World War from the inside!

This is a chalk cathedral 20 m under the streets of Arras that was the theatre of a flash strategic battle. To surprise the German troops, the Commonwealth forces dug a network of tunnels in the town’s stone quarries among which are the Wellington Tunnels, dug by New Zealand tunnelers at an immense cost to life and material.

The underground network starts at Arras and goes right to the front, over more than 19 km away. 24 000 Australian, British, Canadian, New Zealand, and Newfoundland soldiers (as many soldiers as there were inhabitants in the town at the time) lived here for eight days, waiting nervously for the whistle blast that would announce the attack, in this atmosphere of damp and anxiety but also of fraternity and good humour as shown by the plentiful graffitis left on the walls.

 

With a Brodie helmet firmly placed on your head, you are gripped by the cold as you take the lift down into the depths below Arras. What’s even more striking though is the scenography: muffled explosions, whistle blasts, bellowed orders … you are back in 1917, right up until the shock of the final battle. We share the everyday life of the soldiers whose descendants come from the southern hemisphere to commemorate. Every other visitor is from the Commonwealth! What a great example this is of international fraternity and long-standing commitment for peace and freedom.

Naours

The underground city of Naours

Evidence of Australian soldiers’ daily life

The caves in the underground city of Naours (to the north of Amiens) show an entirely different side to the Australian soldiers during the First World War, that of young men on leave visiting the local monuments as simple tourists. Over 700 of them left nearly 3000 grafittis and signatures here thus leaving an indelible trace of their presence, as if to ensure that their names would live on after the war.

All this interaction had a profound impact on the region and the Australians who went home sometimes took a tiny bit of the Hauts-de-France in their heart with them. And that is why, in the Australian state of Queensland, there are towns with names that sound strangely reminiscent of the Somme’s localities – Pozières, Bapaume, Bullecourt, Fleurbaix and, of course, Amiens.

Local’s tip

Jean-Pierre Gilson, photographe à CompiègneJean-Pierre Gilson, photographe à Compiègne
Two secret spots to capture the very best photos of Laon

Keen photographers and selfie seekers are always on the lookout for the most ‘wow’ inducing views, right? If that’s you and you’re in Laon, here’s the lowdown: Head to ‘La Porte d’Ardon’ old town gateway for an unrivalled view of the ramparts and towers, and on to ‘La Cuve Saint-Vincent’, a vast, beautiful, off-the-beaten-track and wooded part of Laon where once vines grew. It’s a gorgeous place for a walk with just a few steep climbs to negotiate! Another great spot for a photo opportunity is Rue Thibesard, with a great vista over the cathedral, church of Saint-Martin and the aforementioned Cuve Saint-Vincent.

Jean-Pierre Gilson, Photographer and expert on the southerly départements of the Hauts de France region