War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

Notes from PhD Land: Under the Battlefields of the Great War

Last week I had the great privilege to be taken into the souterrains of the Great War battlefields in Northern France with the Durand Group.
A team of archeologists, historians, and former EOD experts, with years of experience in conflict zones both within Great Britain, and without, allowed me to accompany them into Maison Blanche, a First World War billet in an old underground chalk quarry, then into the Goodman subway leading into the tunnels from behind the lines towards the front at Vimy Ridge. My purpose was twofold: to look at the hundreds of pieces of carvings and graffiti left primarily by Canadian soldiers to see what narrative I might read there, and to look at faces carved and depicted by soldiers. This latter quest was part of our ongoing research following the 1914FACES2014 project that I have been attached to these past 2 1/2 years.

The experience with the Durand group was one that will take a long time to digest. Perhaps I’ve been in this war business for too long, but while I was impressed by the graffiti I saw, I was less moved emotionally than I had expected. What I saw were not signatures predicting impending death, but rather, signatures, graffiti, carving, that spoke of vitality and young male life. There were, at least for me, no ghosts down there in the souterrains. Perhaps because they were transit tunnels and temporary billets, I could not smell fear there in the narrow carved corridors and the cramped caverns. Maybe it was because the souterrains represented shelter, temporary safety.

The Durand group have photographed and catalogued over 3000 pieces of graffiti and carvings and they report that they have never found any graffiti or carvings overtly protesting the war, the conditions (miraculous given the soldiers’ favourite pastime!), against the military hierarchy (ditto!), or against the Germans. What they have found includes: religious; poetry; humour; sexual (boys will be boys); many, many regimental badges; masonic; doodles and remembrance (A. Hawkins 2012).

While at Maison Blanche, I met General (retired) Rick Hillier and a desert diver who had been in Afghanistan, then the next day I had the chance to go onto Goodman subway with a family from Ontario who had come to see their great-Grandfather’s graffiti that he had made while on his way towards fighting at Vimy in 1917. The 1917 soldier, age 27, had survived the war having been shot in the neck, and having been given 57 hard days labour and a session with a Catherine wheel for being drunk in the trenches (can anyone blame him?), came home to Canada and raised 7 children. One of those children’s children’s children had a chance to see his ancestor’s signature there in the dark tunnel deep under Vimy Ridge.

on a personal note: I’m in the last stages of the PhD and am beyond tired. I returned from France having been underground and with the Durand boys for 6 days (they were the best of hosts), then three days in beautiful, beautiful Amiens, where I gave a paper on Michael Longley and ‘The Tin Noses Shop’, and attended the opening of the 1914FACES2014 exhibit at L’Historial de la Grande Guerre at Peronne. I had a major installation in the exhibit, my film Champs de Visions/Fields of Vision/Blickefelder, which a was very exciting prospect- they have never exhibited contemporary art.

Unfortunatly, L’Historial did not understand the basic premise of the installation (light, projection, loop, dark room, sound, lots of sound of birdsong and gunfire all shot in situ in the battlefields, the woods (Mametz, Thiepval), the cemeteries, the wildflower and corn fields in all weather) and presented my work as if it was a badly edited travel film. It was embarrassing to see my work so utterly desecrated. C’est la vie I suppose when one is dealing with a museum whose director shrugged his shoulders last year when I asked him where the Canadian presence was in the museum (there was representation of British, African, Indian, Australian, German, American etc. etc. but no Canadian, not even a soldier’s button) and who said to me, “Well we couldn’t include everybody.” I was stunned, having just visited some of the thousands and thousands of Canadian graves that surround his village. Canadian boys whose remains lie in the ground so far from home. I suppose theirs wasn’t a great enough contribution to warrant a nod in one of the “most important” Great World museums in France. Hmmm.

Alors, c’est la vie n’est-ce pas?


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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled Notes from PhD Land: Under the Battlefields of the Great War. It was posted here on June 28, 2015.

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