From the depths: King's Alumna works to unearth centuries old set of carvings by Canadian Soldiers
May 14, 2015
Story by Lisa Michienzi
This year marks one of the centennial years of the First World War.
There are no veterans left who fought on the fields of Flanders, or who rushed to face their opposition in the Battle of the Somme, but we can still understand the remnants of this war by what our soldiers left behind by visiting an exhibit at Museum London. King’s alumna Katrina Pasierbek played a major role in researching the soldiers featured in Museum London’s exhibit Souterraine Impressions.
The Canadian Historical Documentation and Imaging Group; better know as Canadigm, is a not-for-profit organization based in London, Ontario, centered on keeping history alive for future generations. Since its founding in 2011, Canadigm has worked on digitally recording and documenting historic sites and artifacts related to Canadian history. Its first project, the Souterraine Impressions, has highlighted a very important part of Canadian history that without digital preservation would be lost to us, and to future generations.
The Souterraine Impressions, discovered preserved in heaps of garbage in 2001 by M. Dominique Faivre, a member of the Association de Recherches Historiques et Archéologiques Militaires (ARHAM), are carvings engraved in the chalk walls of underground caves and trenches in France that provided safety and refuge for Canadian soldiers during World War I. Canadian forces stationed in these man-made caves were hidden there away from enemy forces for weeks at a time, awaiting orders to join the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The cave drawings were etched by these men to pass the time, as well as leave a remnant of themselves behind, were as simplistic as their name and service number, or as complex as their regimental cap badge.
Canadigm’s goal with the project is to document, and recreate a number of the soldiers’ carvings utilizing high-resolution photographs, a scanner and 3D printer, and research the men who crafted these pieces with the hope of presenting their findings about the lives of these soldiers to their relatives and the public.
As the digitized carvings began to take shape, Canadigm had begun researching the men who had lived in the caves, and beautifully crafted these pieces. With such a vast number of carvings and their artisans to inquire about, Canadigm Board Member and Western University History Professor Dr. Jonathan F.W. Vance enlisted the proficient research skills of his master’s student Katrina Pasierbek.
Pasierbek is a King’s graduate in history, whose love for Canadian military history was fostered by her friend, mentor, and King’s history professor Dr. Graham Broad. Dr. Broad previously recommended her for the Canadian Battlefields Foundation Study Tour (CBF) of France and Belgium, which solidified her love for Canada’s military history. In 2014, while she was completing her Master of History degree at Western University, Pasierbek was asked to work on the Souterraine Impressions as the biographer of the soldiers.
“I had already been aware of the work that Canadigm had been doing in the caves of France. I went to a talk by Zenon Andrusyszyn, the Executive Director of Canadigm, the year before, and thought that this project was the most incredible thing. I walked away wanting to learn more, and questioning why I hadn’t heard of this piece of history before,” says Pasierbek.
Her interest regarding the Souterraine Impressions, combined with her research skills gave her the edge she needed to be a great fit for the project.
For the better part of a year, Pasierbek worked on compiling information about the soldiers responsible for the cave carvings.
“It was challenging, as I had never traced a First World War soldier’s family in an effort to locate their descendants before.”
Very modestly, when asked about her research work on the project, Pasierbek said: “I truly believe that everyone has a worthy story to tell, and what was compiled really was dictated by the documents that were available to us.”
Utilizing local, domestic and international archives, contacting museums, and tracing familial locations through decades of phone books, Pasierbek was able to compile all necessary research into the soldier’s lives.
The Souterraine Exhibit, which is running until September 7th at Museum London, will then be on the road for the next three years.
Currently, of the 25 pieces that are on display, 20 were researched by Pasierbek. “Visiting the exhibit as a student of history and having that take away moment- it’s something that not too many researcher see, for me that is the best experience.”
“I do hope that other museums pick it up because it is a little known piece of such a well-known battle that I truly believe lets us learn just a little more about the men who fought in Vimy Ridge, from a different perspective, and from a different light by looking at the messages they choose to leave, by the artistry they had, and the skills that they had. We don’t get that in letters, in postcards, or in service files. I think that it’s an extraordinary project, and I was so lucky and humbled to play a small part,” adds Pasierbek.
“The time I spent studying history at King’s prepared me for the work that I am doing now. And for that I credit Professor Broad’s continued guidance, and for mentors like Professor Vance for showing me the opportunities that exist for history graduates in the field.”
“It’s truly a history student’s dream come true to be a part of something like this. It was an honour and a privilege to work on this project, and to honour these men in the way that Canada has,” says Pasierbek.
Currently, Pasierbek is working at the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum in London, Ontario, where she gets to help future generations explore Canada’s military past.
To find out more about the Souterraine Exhibit, check out Museum London’s website . To stay up to date with the work they are doing, and to research the soldiers and their carvings, check out the Canadigm website.