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"Faithful Forever"

Exploring the souterrains

Journalist Richard Foote (left) and members of the 15th Battalion Memorial Project with Durand group member Phillip Robinson (centre) at the entrance to Maison Blanche. 2011

Several groups have devoted considerable effort to exploring the souterrains. The efforts of two of these groups is of interest.

The Durand Group
The Durand Group has its’ origins with investigations of the Grange subway and connected La Folie system tunnels at the Vimy Memorial Site by Royal Engineer Teams in the late 1980s. These established that there was one primed mine charge with 6,000 lb of explosive (the Durand Mine) situated 70 ft below the surface close to the Grange subway, and another small camouflet charge in the tunnels under the forest area. Archival research also indicated the possibility of an abandoned 20,000 lb charge under the busy road junction at the Broadmarsh crater. The potential hazard presented by these mines concerned Veterans Affairs Canada. In 1996, with the approach of the 80th anniversary commemorations at Vimy, Lt Col Phillip Robinson (by then retired), who had conducted the earlier investigations, was asked to access and check the situation with the ‘Broadmarsh mine’. A small team of specialists in various disciplines was assembled and gained access. They found that although a substantial quantity of explosive (ammonal) remained, the initiation system had been removed and there was no danger of an induced explosion. Arising from this, Lt Col Mike Watkins, MBE, of the Royal Logistic Corps, and a leading international expert in explosives, proposed the forming of a specialist Group to conduct further investigations of Great War Tunnels and Mines. Soon afterwards Mike Watkins removed the sensitive detonators and primers from the Durand mine, rendering it safe. Consequent on this the title Durand Group was adopted by the then members. It is defined in its Constitution as “a fraternal association of individuals who have voluntarily undertaken to work together to further research and investigation into military related subterranean features”. In support of Veterans Affairs Canada, the Group continued with investigations of the many kilometres of tunnels beneath the Vimy site but received a tragic setback in August 1998 when Mike Watkins was killed by a collapse of clay whilst in the process of accessing another tunnel system at Vimy. He is commemorated by the exceptional tribute of a bronze plaque erected by Veterans Affairs close to the entrance to the Grange subway. The then members of the Group decided that continuing the works undertaken with Mike was the best manner in which his vision could be realised. Since then the Group have accessed around six kilometres of British and German tunnels at Vimy and disarmed two further live mine charges, engaged with the Arras municipality in investigations of the Ronville tunnel system, and undertaken works in a number of other places, including on the Somme. One of the more notable achievements was gaining access, through clearance of an eight metre deep shaft, of the Goodman subway at Vimy and opening up about 600 metres. Untouched since the battlefield clearances of the 1920s this incorporated a rich harvest of graffiti left (mostly) by the troops of 7 (Canadian) Infantry Brigade in early April 1917. The work on the Goodman subway led to approaches from a Canadian film company for a film, preceding the 90th anniversary at Vimy, which in turn indirectly led the Durand Group to the Maison Blanche souterraine.
Canadian Digital Imaging Group

Canadian soldiers’ secrets hidden in ancient cave near Vimy Ridge |

The Canadian Historical Documentation and Imaging Group, known as CANADIGM, is a not-for profit group consisting of logistics, technology, media specialists, graphic and visual artists, and photographers. CANADIGM’S mission is to digitally document, in a non-invasive manner, Canadian historical artifacts, objects, and locations where access to the public is limited or nonexistent, or where such objects and artifacts may be lost to history permanently. In May 2011, armed with a vertical camera boom specifically designed for the project, affectionately nicknamed “Le Gizmo”, the group mapped the locations of the images created by the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the first World War (WW1).

The project began when a television program aired in 2009 about the tunnels and souterraines (underground quarry) in France that featured carvings and drawings created by soldiers during WW1. As a visual artist with a long-standing interest in the World Wars, a project that would preserve history by scanning, replicating, documenting, and exhibiting the work in these tunnels was envisioned.  In this way, Canadians and others would have the opportunity to see the work Canadian soldiers created and learn about the brave soldiers who fought for this country.

The final outcome of the project would provide Canadians and others the opportunity to see the work Canadian soldiers created and left behind, as well as learn about who they were prior to volunteering to fight for a country’s freedom.

In preparing for the project, it is interesting to note that in 2001, M. Dominique Faivre, a member of the Association de Recherches Historique et Archéologiques Militaires (ARHAM), through her research, found the location of the entrance used in WW1 by Canadian troops.  Five years later, in 2006, Judy Ruzylo, a researcher employed by a film company, again determined the exact location of the souterrain and gained access to the site by negotiating a filming agreement with the landowner. At that point, the Durand Group, a voluntary association of specialists dedicated to the investigation and recording of military subterranean features, was called in to assess the site and determine the quality of the images. Most of the Durand Group’s work to date has entailed accessing Great War tunnels, dugouts, and souterraines in northern France and documenting the findings.  In 2007, the Ambler Family visited the site and subsequently had moulds made of their grandfather’s carvings.  The replicas were donated to the Military Museum in Calgary.  This information helped shape the work to follow.

The 15th Battalion project team connected with the Durand Group and preparations began for the CANADIGM group to travel to the site known as Maison Blanche located in the VIMY area.  The Maison Blanche Souterrain holds images related to many battalions which includes the 15th battalion.  Cap badge carvings of the 48th, 92nd and 134th Highlanders and names connected with the 15th are written on the walls throughout the souterrain. Thus, the purpose of the May 2011 trip was to begin the documentation process and launch the Souterraine Impressions Project.

Now that the preliminary images have been obtained, historical documents are being searched in order to link the soldiers’ names with their service records, and eventually tell their story. In the next phase, these souterrain walls will be scanned using a laser scanner capable of creating a 3D image file that will be used in either a 3D printer or a Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machine for reproduction. This method will allow capturing the image without touching the surface and destroying the patina developed over more than 90 years.

In the final phase of the project, the reproduced images will become part of an interactive educational display for the touring Canada-wide exhibition. The goal is also to complete 3D laser scan of the souterrain in order to provide a virtual walk through for the public.

As the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge approached (2017), with this multi-phased project, the expressions, and what proved to be in many cases, the final testimonials of soldiers who subsequently gave their lives in forging Canada’s identity during WW1, will be made accessible to the public.

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