‘IT JUST GIVES ME GOOSEBUMPS’
Work of local soldier is among First World War replica cave carvings in Essex exhibit
It’s known as the bleeding heart. Water stains streak down and through William Wyeth’s printed name and the heart he carved in 1917 while hiding in an underground cave in France awaiting the start of the pivotal Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Wyeth would survive Vimy and a German prisoner-of-war camp where he was held for 17 months before being freed and then settling in Windsor after the war. But he and the other Canadian soldiers carving their names and sometimes intricate battalion badges into the chalky cave walls didn’t know their fate.
“Here they were in these dark, wet, cold caves and they ’re carving and writing and leaving something about themselves and the rest of their battalion. It just gives me goosebumps,” said Lisa Wacheski, curator and manager of education at the Canadian Transportation Museum and Heritage Village where replicas of the cave carvings are on display until Nov. 16. This Remembrance Day marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, and the museum is holding a special event Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon with an exhibit called Souterraine Impressions. The cave was rediscovered in 2001 by a French military archeologist. A short British video of the carvings intrigued Zenon Andrusyszyn, a retired London, Ont., teacher who started the non-profit Canadian Historical Documentation and Imaging Group, known as CANADIGM, which was assigned in 2011 to photograph and laserscan the images to create 3D replicas.
Andrusyszyn, who will be speaking at 10 a.m. on Saturday, said being in the cave was like being in a church.
“It’s extremely quiet and you can hear your heart beat, and just looking around and seeing some of these carvings, it was a really, really moving experience for me.” Many soldiers carefully carved copies of their battalion badges on the walls and some were thinking of home, said Andrusyszyn, noting one soldier carved a cow and a pig. “It leads you into reflecting on what they were thinking of when they were there, 40 feet below ground, fully hearing the bombardment that went on at the front lines.”
Wyeth, who had come from England to Canada when he was 19 before signing up with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, worked at the Ford Motor Company in Windsor after the war and lived to be 94, said Andrusyszyn. Wyeth’s carving isn’t the only local link. Robert Shuel, who enlisted in 1914 at the beginning of the war and went on to be awarded the Military Medal of Gallantry, is believed to have ties to Essex County. Shuel, who would live to be 90, drew a picture of a woman in a fancy hat. She was his girlfriend and would later become his wife, Wacheski said of the drawing that gives her goosebumps every time she sees it.
“I’ve never been in war, but I would think that I wouldn’t be able to sleep much,” she said. “This is what they were doing to pass the time and leave some memory of themselves. They didn’t know if they were going to be coming out of there or not.”
There are more than 45 replica carvings or drawings in the exhibit and more than 250 names of soldiers in the cave. More than 100,000 people have seen the exhibit since it opened in France in 2017. Seeing the carvings and reading about the soldiers leaves many emotional and moved to tears as they leave the exhibit, Andrusyszyn said.
Few people are given access to the site on a French farm, and Andrusyszyn doesn’t know how long the carvings on the fragile, chalky walls will survive or how much longer the exhibit will run. Some historians say the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which began April 9, 1917, helped Canada come of age, with all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fighting together for the first time as one. The Canadian victory came at a steep cost, with more than 10,000 Canadians killed or wounded.
“This is our Canadian heritage.”
First World War veteran William Wyeth, who survived a German prisonerof-war camp, settled in Windsor after the war. A replica of his carvings is featured in an exhibit until Nov. 16.
William Wyeth carved his name and a heart in a cave before the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. This Remembrance Day marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
Lisa Wacheski of the Canadian Transportation Museum and Heritage Village says she was moved by the soldiers’ carvings.