A new exhibition at the Canadian War Museum takes visitors into the secret caves that sheltered soldiers in Vimy, France, and uncovers the names, messages and images they carved into the soft chalk walls. Preserved in Stone – Underground Art of the First World War highlights two projects that document and preserve the traces left behind by Canadian soldiers living underground as they prepared for the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
The exhibition consists of 3D reproductions and photographs of carvings and other markings made by servicemen to express their thoughts, pass the time or simply provide directions in their subterranean labyrinth. Together, their words and images reflect the camaraderie, boredom, loneliness and fear that characterized life underground.
“After a century of obscurity, it’s a thrill to see these hidden artworks re-emerge from the darkness and to discover the echoes of Canadian soldiers who fought in the pivotal Battle of Vimy Ridge,” says Stephen Quick, Director General of the Canadian War Museum. “Thanks to technology and the dedicated individuals working to document and preserve these vestiges of the past, we can imagine in vivid detail what it must have been like to spend days or weeks underground, waiting to engage the enemy.”
The caves, some dating back to medieval times, were originally chalk quarries — expanded and repurposed by armies on both sides of the First World War for use as barracks, storage and staging areas. The system of connecting tunnels, which soldiers called “subways,” also allowed troops and supplies to travel to and from the front lines more safely than they could above ground.
The carvings in the exhibition were produced by CANADIGM. This volunteer group uses laser-scanning technology to record 3D images of the fragile cave carvings, and then creates replicas from the scans using a 3D printer. The reproductions on display include regimental insignia, a letterbox sculpted into the wall that reportedly served as a mail drop-off point for soldiers and a Celtic cross memorializing three members of the 48th Highlanders killed by shellfire on their way to the Maison Blanche cave near Vimy Ridge.
The photographs are by Brett Killington, a New Zealand-born, British-based photographer working to document the physical evidence of the First World War. His subjects include the tunnels themselves and the carvings adorning the walls: the names of soldiers and their hometowns, images of loved ones and other reminders of home, various symbols and signs showing the way to latrines and other places.
Preserved in Stone – Underground Art of the First World War is presented from October 17, 2016 to January 7, 2018 in the Lobby of the Canadian War Museum. The exhibition was made possible by the generous support of the Friends of the Canadian War Museum, and Michael and Anne Gough.
The Canadian War Museum gratefully acknowledges the support of its Official Partners for the Centenary of the First World War: John and Pattie Cleghorn and Family; H.Col (Ret’d) John C. Eaton, O.Ont., K.St.J., D.Com. and H.Col Sally Horsfall Eaton, S.S.St.J., C.D., R.N., LL.D.; the Friends of the Canadian War Museum; TD Bank Group; VISITFLANDERS; and the R. Howard Webster Foundation.
The Canadian War Museum is Canada’s national museum of military history. Its mission is to promote public understanding of Canada’s military history in its personal, national, and international dimensions. Work of the Canadian War Museum is made possible in part through financial support of the Government of Canada.