Tunnels and Trenches
When the Canadians arrived at Vimy Ridge in December of 1916, not only was the terrain above ground been heavily battle scarred, the earth underfoot was a labyrinth of tunnels. This subterranean war zone was expanded during the Canadians' stay at Vimy with the help of British Tunneling companies. The Canadians used these passageways before the Battle of Vimy Ridge as a way to protect soldiers as they moved to the front line. This was particularly important at Vimy, where the German troops were able to see every above ground movement of the Canadians for many kilometers from their perch high on the ridge. A dozen of these passageways were built and they varied in length from several hundred meters to more than a kilometer.
Large and small rooms off of the passageways served as medical facilities, offices, dormitories, bathrooms, and kitchens. Although the subways often had electricity, piped water, phone lines, and provided protection from artillery fire, they were prone to leakage, poor air quality, and were unpleasant to be in for any great length of time.
Carvings in the Chalk
Many Canadian troops left their mark in the tunnels and dugouts at Vimy.
It is interesting to note that although the Canadian Maple Leaf is a common symbol found in the underground graffiti, it was not yet the symbol on the national flag of Canada.
Just as the identity of Canada as a nation was developing during the First World War, so was the maple leaf as a symbol Canadians identified with.
The Trenches at Vimy
Visitors to Vimy Ridge today can get a sense of what the trenches were like by walking through the same front line trenches the troops did in 1917. However, it is important to remember that these are rebuilt trenches made after the war with concrete duckboards and walls made by filling sandbags with concrete.
The Canadian trenches at Vimy Ridge were, in some places, uncomfortably close to German trenches. In certain areas, there was literally a stone’s (or grenade’s) throw distance across a crater and between the two front lines. The trenches of the First World War, including those at Vimy Ridge, were places where disease (like trenchfoot), lice, and rats flourished. Men lived in these trenches, constantly outside no matter the weather, for equal rotations of 4-6 days in the front, secondary and reserve trenches before being moved back from the front lines. They slept, ate, worked, wrote letters home, drank their rum ration, experienced moments of sheer terror and hours of boredom. At all times, they were at risk of a sniper’s bullet, random shelling, and German trench raids. These conditions led to extreme stress, exhaustion, and for some men, shell shock (Click here for a video example of soldiers suffering from shellshock).