Symbols of pride. Symbols of hope. Symbols of love. The images of carvings – some intricate, others rudimentary – on the walls of a chalk cave deep underground in the French countryside are symbols of Canadian lives lived and lost during the First World War.
Painstakingly photographed by members of CANADIGM, a London, Ont.-based group of artists, photographers and technicians dedicated to preserving and documenting Canadian history, the more than 200 carvings by Canadian soldiers holed up underground near Vimy, France, nearly a century ago, are now seeing the light of day.
Museum-quality photographs and 40 life-sized 3D-replicas created using a 3D-laser scanner and printer are currently touring the country as part of the non-profit group’s Souterrain Impressions exhibition.
The project is a labour of love according to Emmy MacLachlan, a Western Continuing Studies Art Therapy graduate. She recalls rappelling 30-feet down into the cave with a high-definition camera strapped to her back to spend 12-14 hours a day over a two-week period in 2012 photographing the powerful images engraved on the malleable chalk walls.
“What drives me is, these young men believed their actions would make Canada a better, safer country for their families and because of that I truly appreciate their sacrifice,” MacLachlan said.
In total, more than 10,000 Canadian men were killed or injured during the historic battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, where the four Canadian divisions fought together for the first time, triumphing over German forces.
Many of the young men biding their time in the Vimy cavern, which is located on a farmer’s private property and was originally used as a Medieval quarry, met their fate at the battle of Vimy Ridge.
“Men were asked to rise and go forth – and they did. These carvings are representations of human beings; young men whose lives were decided in that moment in our history,” she said. “These carvings are an assurance that the men were there, that they were giving their time and their lives for a reason. They wanted to be remembered.”
Like Private R. McKee, of London, who carved his name alongside his regiment’s cap badge, the 48th Highlanders of Canada. Or Private A. Billings, from the 1st Battalion, and Sniper Malone, of the 14th Battalion, who scrawled their names, one on top of the other, at a height of 12 feet on the cavern wall. Or Thomas Mason and William Beckett, who whittled a letter box, for soldiers to place letters destined for loved ones back home in Toronto.
Some men used pocket knives or bayonets, others used utensils or their map pencils to carve the walls. Many of the soldiers who left their mark were underage and many did not return home.
In addition to taking photographic evidence of the carvings, the CANADIGM team, led by local founder Zenon Andrusyszyn, worked with Western Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson and History professor Jonathan Vance to help identify 200 of the images and link them to the soldiers’ service records at Library and Archives Canada, providing a living record of their sacrifice.
“I always find it enormously rewarding to provide identification – to be able to say that this person was in this place at that time, and did this carving. It’s a way to humanize big events,” Vance said. “Everyone knows about Vimy Ridge in terms of the war or Canadian identity in a broad sense, but this introduces us, a century later, to someone who was actually there. It allows us to develop a connection with the soldier as a person, not just a member of an army, and to see what his life was like before it was interrupted by war, to imagine who was in his mind as he was doing the carving.”
Vance continued, “In my mind, history is something you don’t just read about – you feel it. Being able to run your fingers over one of these crest replicas and to look at a picture of the man who created it – that allows you to feel history.”
Vance and Nelson are members of the CANADIGM Board of Directors.
“This has been an amazing project to be involved with,” Nelson said. “It is an undertaking that celebrates a moment in time that has helped to shape the Canadian identity. This project has grown from the grassroots; it has been made possible by the passion of Zenon and his team.”
Former Western graduate student Katrina Pasierbek, BA’12, Bed’13, MA’14, also worked with Vance on the project.
Because chalk is such a soft, yielding substance, MacLachlan said it’s hard to say how much longer the men’s carvings will survive.
“It’s terribly exciting to know that we’re bringing these images out of the darkness and into the light,” MacLachlan said. “You can see it and touch it with your heart and eyes to understand that presence was there. What these carvings do is create a sense of who they were and their intentions of being there. It’s a physical legacy of their will, written on the walls of this cave.”
In April, the Souterrain Impressions exhibit will travel to Vimy, France, to open a new interactive centre commemorating 100 years since the battle. Some of the 3D images will also find a home at the Canadian Consulate in Washington, D.C.
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PRESERVING THE PAST
The Canadian Historical Documentation & Imaging Group – known as CANADIGM – was founded in 2011 to digitally record the historic sites, documents and artefacts related to Canadian history – especially those the general public might otherwise not have the chance to experience.
CANADIGM is a not-for-profit group based in London, Ont., consisting of visual artists, photographers, former educators, mechanical technicians, as well as media and logistics professionals. The tie that binds us together is a dedication to preserve Canadian history.