Underground Cities

After the first few months of the war, a relatively mobile conflict settled into the now infamous trench warfare experience so powerfully identified with World War I. Integrated with the trench system were other underground spaces soldiers inhabited for extended periods. These caves, the result of centuries of stone quarrying, were mini cities beneath the surface.

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Soldiers Leave their Mark

As the war dragged on month after month, year after year, soldiers faced countless hours of idle time in the underground shelters that were their protection from the battle occurring above. They produced carvings on a variety of subject matter into the soft limestone. Among the most common were recognition of their units and expressions of patriotism.

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Portraits

Portraits were another typical subject matter of the soldiers’ carvings, and were among the most artistically rendered. They ranged from famous figures to self-portraits to caricature.

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Respite From War

Even in the midst of the hardship and suffering of war, soldiers have always sought respite from battle through reminiscence of loved ones at home, following sports teams, thoughts of female companionship, humor, and comfort from those caring for their wounds. These efforts to take personal and psychological refuge from war found broad expression in the stone carvings left by soldiers on all sides.

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Expressions of Religious Faith

The horror and loss of life in war has always been an impetus for solders to examine and embrace their religious faith. Throughout the underground cities are carvings of explicit religious icons, depictions of soldiers expressing their faiths, and carved out chapels and altars used to conduct formal religious services.

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Disasters of the 20th Century

When the soldiers of Europe marched off to war in the late summer of 1914, most expected an adventure that would last mere weeks or months. By the end, in November 1918, millions had been consumed by four years of grinding, mechanized warfare. Casualties, military and civilian, numbered nearly 38 million—more than 17 million dead and 20 million wounded. The psychological and emotional toll was incalculable. Some of the stone carvings capture the enormity of the catastrophe.  

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Artist’s Statement: Jeff Gusky

Over a period of several years, photographer Jeff Gusky made numerous excursions into a forgotten world of underground WWI soldiers' living spaces and documented the stone carvings of the soldiers with high-end art photography. 

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