Americans Underground: Secret City of WWI premieres Monday night March 13th on the Smithsonian Channel (check air times here). The documentary special follows Texas trauma surgeon Jeff Gusky as he investigates rumors of a hidden city beneath a French wheat field.
Near the Chemin des Dames on the Western Front between France and Germany, soldiers escaped unendurable battlefield conditions by living underground in a series of caves created by an abandoned limestone quarry. As the front lines shifted, the area was used by French, German and later American soldiers. Each country's troops left its own evidence behind.
"It's like a shipwrecked person who wants someone to know that they once lived, and so they put a note in a bottle and decades after that shipwrecked person is gone from earth, it washes up on shore and someone finds it," Gusky says in the film. "It's totally raw, it's untouched. It's unfiltered."
Gusky photographs hundreds of inscriptions, images and carvings and takes the evidence back to military historians in the United States. We learn that the etchings were made by soldiers from the Yankee Division, an American unit from New England that was among the first to arrive in France. He returns to the caves with the historians and we learn the tale of carvings made by the Passamaquoddy Indian Tribe from Maine. Members of this tribe fought and even died for America long before they were granted the rights of full citizenship.
We also meet descendants of the men who left their mark in the cave. It's a powerful connection to a war that most Americans have forgotten. Americans Underground: Secret City of WWI is a few cuts above most commercial cable documentaries. Gusky is obviously moved by his work and the research is much more detailed than the speculation we usually get from these shows.
Check out these clips from the program:
What Did World War I Soldiers Leave Behind in Their Secret Bunkers?%embed1%
What Do Native American Carvings in French WWI Quarries Mean?%embed2%
You can see more of Gusky's photos of the stone carvings in the exhibition "Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War," at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, which opens April 6. The exhibition was prepared in collaboration with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.