The First World War is often remembered for battles fought by air, sea and in deep, muddy trenches. But near one of the war’s most notorious battlefields lies a vast underground network of white-walled caves inscribed with carvings made by Canadian soldiers.

The pictures, dates and messages they left behind tell stories of bravery, comradery and, for some, a longing to return home.

Preserved beneath a field near Vimy Ridge, Maison Blanche was a subterranean hideaway for Canadian soldiers seeking shelter from the artillery above. The troops lived underground for days on end while they waited for their turn to fight.

When boredom sank in, they used candlelight to draw on the pale chalk walls. Soldier Leroy Lacey, a farmer from Dunwich, Ont., drew a pig and a horse, likely an homage to his life back home. Private Robert McKee, a wood carver from London, Ont., created an elaborate insignia commemorating the 15th Canadian battalion.

McKee survived the war and eventually returned home. Lacey did not.

More than 1,000 pieces of graffiti have been digitally scanned and recorded on the cave walls by volunteers. There are so many etchings that volunteers continue to comb the walls for new etchings, years after the project began.

“The marks on these walls … are their pride. So they are proud of where they’re from,” said Zenon Andrusyszyn, artistic and executive director of the Canadian Historical Documentation and Imaging Group. “It’s more so about the soldiers before they became soldiers. To us, that’s our interest.”

The candlelight has since been replaced with a full underground lighting system, and outsiders can now enter the caves to get a glimpse of the preserved memories of life at war.

“It’s an incredible time capsule,” said Andy Hawkins, chairman of the Durand Group, a group of British volunteers that has worked to preserve the cave.

With a report from CTV’s London Bureau Chief Paul Workman