Vimy Ridge cave carvings in Montreal 3D exhibit recall soldiers' lives underground

A new exhibition at The Royal Montreal Regiment Museum shows 3D images of carvings done by World War I soldiers who lived underground for weeks, rehearsing for battle - and carving mementos in their spare time.

WWI soldiers rehearsing for epic battle passed time carving while living 10 metres underground

The Royal Montreal Regiment Museum has a new exhibition featuring 3D reproductions of carvings done by World War I soldiers living deep underground in the days and weeks leading up to the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The soldiers were living in a former chalk quarry that was connected to a network of kilometres-long tunnels dug underground around Vimy, to keep the troops safe. 

The men were waiting and training for the battle which would go on to be a major Canadian victory. 

To pass the time, they carved regimental badges and other messages into the soft chalk walls of the caves.

A Canadian non-profit company called Canadigm visited the caves and captured the carvings, using non-invasive 3D laser scanners and high-resolution photography.

The result is a collection of highly precise replicas: 20 modules each highlighting an underground carving, the soldier who created it and an interactive kiosk providing details on Canada's role in World War I. 

Employees at Canadigm, the non-profit Canadian Historical Documentation and Imaging group, went down into the caves to scan the WW I carvings. (RMR Foundation)

Story behind each carving

Each carving on display is accompanied by a short biography of the soldier. 

Herman Schofield lied about his age to join the army at 16.  He would have been 18 when he carved out his cap badge on the wall of the cave.
A fish etched into the rock by a Canadian soldier in 1917. It is one of a series of etchings in a tunnel under Vimy Ridge, just before the historic battle, that have rarely been seen. (CBC)

Colin Robinson, Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel of the RMR, pointed out that that badge is the same one that soldiers wear on their beret today.

"It was a relatively new badge created for the First World War," Robinson said, pointing out some details in the 3D image.

"Here he's got his initials, he's got his name, his town he was obviously proud of. And, of course, the date: the 19th of March, 1917. He obviously wanted to be remembered."

Privates with pencils

The purple colour of the sketching piques Robinson's interest.

"He's done that with a trench pencil," Robinson said, "and that was a brand new thing that they'd done at the time. They'd issued a map pencil to the soldiers and maps."
A cave carving by Herman Schofield, from Chatham, N.B., who lied about his age so he could join the war. He enlisted at age of 16. He was wounded near Vimy but survived. (The Royal Montreal Regiment Museum)

"Prior to that attack at Vimy Ridge, no army had ever given their privates maps. So when they were following their leaders and their officers got killed or wounded, the attack would kind of just stop, and all the soldiers would go to ground."

"But this is obvious he had been issued that pencil, because when they wrote on a wet surface it turned purple and left an indelible mark."     

Other carvings are more sophisticated. 

One done by a stonemason shows his regiment crest.

Another is a mailbox, carved by two comrades. The soldiers used it to deposit their letters and postcards destined for home.

"Some of these soldiers had probably been down there for a couple of weeks, so they had time to do it – and you can see by some of the carvings that there were some very skilled at what they were doing," said Robinson.

Soldiers lived, trained in utter darkness

Robinson said the men underwent serious training in the caves, under the watchful eye of General Sir Arthur William Currie, who had carefully studied what had gone wrong at the Battle of the Somme.
Soldiers lived and worked in total darkness while training for the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. (RMR Foundation)

"They made a map model on the ground of exactly all the different terrain features that everyone had to use and the soldiers walked over it at the right time," Robinson explained. "They practised another Canadian invention called "the rolling barrage," where they would drop artillery rounds just in front of the troops."

 "The troops walked right in behind them, and it kept them safe. They called it the 'Vimy glide.'"

Robinson said it was pitch black in the cave, and living conditions were very damp but surprisingly safe.

"Quite frankly, these conditions would have been fantastic compared to the conditions of most of their comrades who would have been in muddy trenches, under shell fire, machine gun fire, gas warfare."

Souterrain Impressions is on display at The Royal Montreal Regiment Museum until the end of April. It will tour across Canada after that. The 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge is in 2017.


Jeanette Kelly works as the arts reporter at CBC Montreal. She's also the host of Cinq à Six, Quebec's Saturday afternoon culture show on CBC Radio One.

with files from Loreen Pindera