April 7, 2017 10:23 pm

Canadian soldiers’ secrets hidden in ancient cave near Vimy Ridge

WATCH ABOVE: In the weeks leading up to the Battle of Vimy Ridge, many Canadian soldiers hid in a secret cave, close to the front lines. As Jeff Semple explains from Neuville-St Vaast, France, a century later, that cave is still telling their stories.

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Many Canadian soldiers hid underground before they went “over the top” at Vimy Ridge 100 years ago.

Buried more than 10 metres below the famous battlefield is Maison Blanche — a centuries-old quarry that became a secret hideout for hundreds of Canadian soldiers.

Located about a kilometre from the front lines, the cave was used as a staging ground in the days and weeks leading up to the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

WATCH: Canadian soldiers leave carvings on walls of Vimy Ridge cave

“If you’re above ground, you have bullets whizzing around, you don’t know where the next shell is going to come from. Here, it’s relatively safe,” says Zenon Andrusyszyn.

The London, Ont., native is the artistic and executive director for the Canadian Historical Documentation and Imaging Group (CANADIGM), a non-profit that works to preserve and study Maison Blanche.

Andrusyszyn says some of the soldiers lived in the caves for weeks. And many left their marks during their time underground.

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The chalk walls contain 250 images — drawings and carvings of the soldiers’ names, regiment numbers and pictures of wives and girlfriends back home.They even carved a mailbox into the cave wall, where soldiers could leave letters to loved ones.

“Seeing these images on the walls — what they’re proud of, their last memories; it speaks volumes about what they were thinking at the time,” Andrusyszyn says.

 

After the war, Maison Blanche was forgotten. The quarry was abandoned and eventually used as a dumping ground by a local farmer.

But in 2007, an archeologist stumbled upon the underground time capsule. A group of Canadian, British and French volunteers have since worked to connect the cave drawings to the soldiers behind them.

“We’re trying to bring their memories back, in terms of who they were as people,” Andrusyszyn says. He and his team at CANADIGM are launching a new exhibit at the Vimy Ridge Visitors Centre on April 10.

They’ve reproduced the cave images using 3D-laser scanning and have spent the past few years researching the soldiers’ backgrounds. The displays at the exhibit contain 3D-printed reproductions of the carvings alongside photographs of the soldiers and details about their lives.

One display highlights the cave drawing of a pig — through their research, Andrusyszyn and his team determined the image was drawn by an Ontario farmer named Leroy Lacey. He survived the Battle of Vimy Ridge but was killed a few months later.

“So that would’ve been his last message to the world. So it’s very moving from that perspective,” Andrusyszyn says.

Canada’s Vimy Memorial contains the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were listed as “missing, presumed dead” in France during the First World War.

Jeff Semple/Global News

The cave at Maison Blanche also contains markings from four aboriginal soldiers, including Joseph Halkett from Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan.

He defied his parents’ orders and walked 250 kilometres to sign up to fight. His 65-year-old granddaughter, Grace Goertzen, said they never recovered his medals and she doesn’t even have a photograph of her grandfather, which makes the discovery of his cave carving all the more special.

“When I found out, it gave me this good feeling that they actually have something of him — a carving and where he was,” Goertzen says.

“I’m not much for wars, but to think of him being out there, risking his life, it’s very touching.”

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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