McMaster map helping commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge

By Erica Balch , April 6, 2017
    A map from McMaster’s WWI collection is serving as the background for a special exhibit now on display Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. The exhibit features 3D reproductions of military crests and insignias carved by Canadian soldiers into the walls of the underground tunnels where they waited for the Battle of Vimy Ridge to begin. Exhibit images Copyright CANADIGM 2016. Used with permission.

On Easter Monday, 1917, four Canadian divisions stormed Vimy Ridge.

It was the start of a three-day battle that would ultimately end in a victory for the Allied Powers and cement Canada’s reputation as a formidable fighting force in its own right. But it would also come at a terrible cost, leaving 10,000 Canadian soldiers either dead or wounded.

One hundred years later, a map from McMaster’s WWI map collection is part of Souterrain Impressions,  a special exhibit now on display at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France created to commemorate those who fought in the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The map, a trench map of the area surrounding Vimy Ridge, is providing the backdrop for the exhibit, which features 3D reproductions of military crests and insignias carved by Canadian soldiers into the wall of an underground tunnel where they waited – some for weeks on end – for the Battle of Vimy Ridge to begin.

The carvings – which can still be found in the tunnel, ten meters below ground – were captured using laser image scanners, then reproduced using 3D printers and other processes. The exhibit is made up of a series of displays that contain reproductions of these carvings as well as a number of drawings that were also found on the wall of the tunnel.

“The map is used as the background for each display. It ties the entire exhibit together and that was key for us,” says Zenon Andrusyszyn, Executive Director of the Canadian Historical Document and Imaging Group (CANADIGM), the organization that created the exhibit.  “When you look at the map, you get a sense of the area and how complicated it all was. It’s a really nice connection between the individuals we’re featuring in the exhibit and the actual battle”

The original carvings made by Canadian soldiers can still be found, undisturbed, in the tunnels beneath Vimy Ridge. Copyright CANADIGM 2016. Used with permission.

The original carvings made by Canadian soldiers can still be found, undisturbed, in the tunnels beneath Vimy Ridge. Copyright CANADIGM 2016. Used with permission.

The map is dated February, 1917 – just two months before the battle – and according to Gord Beck,  Map Specialist in McMaster University Library’s Lloyd Reed Map Collection, provides the most accurate picture available of what the area looked like at the time.

“This map shows exactly what the configuration of the trenches was just before battle,” says Beck. “It shows where the tunnel entrances and exits were, it shows where the barbed wire was, the machine gun posts, where the enemy guns were. Anybody studying the map at the time would have been able to see all that detail.”

Beck says McMaster’s collection of WWI trench maps and WWI aerial photographs are among the best in the world, adding that what makes the collection unique is that the maps have been digitized and are available to researchers online through the Library’s Digital Archive.

“No other university has a WWI map collection like we have,” he says. “Because we invested a lot of time and effort into digitization early on, McMaster has become the main presence on the web when it comes to WWI maps and aerial photographs.”

In fact, Andrusyszyn says it was after finding the map online that he contacted McMaster to inquire about including it in the exhibit.

“I’m glad McMaster has these maps because it’s very difficult to get a hold of these things,” he says. “The fact the McMaster has a collection this good is fabulous – it’s really critical to doing any kind of work like this.”

Souterrain Impressions is currently on display in the newly opened Visitors Education Centre at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. The exhibit has also traveled to London (ON), Montreal and New Brunswick as well as the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC.