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Expansive view underground with stone support columns and carvings visible.
Artist Soldiers

Soldier Artists: Self-Expression in the Trenches

Self-Expression in the Trenches

The grinding, mechanized nature of the first global war, involving millions of infantry combatants, has tended to render the soldiers of World War I as faceless masses rather than individual participants. It is easy to forget that the war was fought by individuals, each with their own unique story.

Recently, an avenue to recover a sense of the individuals who fought this war has been brought to light. Hidden away for a century in the underground quarters that was the sanctuary for the World War I trench warrior are a vast number of stone carvings left by soldiers, on all sides, that provide a glimpse into the humanity of the people who fought in this great and world-changing conflict. These soldier artworks reveal a means of expressing individuality in the midst of chaotic world events engulfing millions, and an avenue for releasing tension in a stress-ridden war environment.

Formerly stone quarries that for centuries supplied the material for cathedrals, castles, monuments, and other structures, these spaces sheltered soldiers as they lived through many hours of tedium between episodes of shelling and combat. For many, the walls of these old quarries became a venue for individual self-expression. With hammer and chisel, they left their meaningful and moving marks, ranging from the simple and unskilled to extraordinary artistic renderings.

A Hidden World Revealed

The existence of what the soldiers left behind has largely disappeared from public knowledge, as many of these underground spaces are on privately held lands. But a few years ago, a door to this passageway back through time was knocked ajar by an intrepid photographer, Jeff Gusky. Gusky learned of the underground World War I stone carvings through friends and acquaintances in France, and cultivated relationships with the property owners who control access to these long abandoned underground soldiers’ refuges of the First World War.

Over a period of several years Gusky has made numerous excursions into this forgotten underground world and documented the stone carvings of the soldiers with high-end art photography. The results are not only a remarkable heretofore lost record of the individual expression of World War I soldiers, but a powerful and prodigious body of photographic artwork. Gusky’s images are a fascinating historical document as well as a moving aesthetic experience.

Photographs by Jeff Gusky