Leaves crunch beneath Marc Askat’s feet as he scours the French countryside for its hidden secrets. He’s searching for something, concealed in the ground beneath the sprawling vegetation. He spots a small white cross; could this be what he’s been looking for?
Askat didn’t unearth this find by chance. An urban explorer with a passion for military history, he regularly researched into the local area and studied the journals of fallen soldiers. And after months of looking, he discovered that there was something remarkable hidden deep within the rural north of France.
Askat, moreover, is a keen photographer. So, one day he picked up his camera along with the journals and headed out into the countryside. He knew roughly where he was going and what he was looking for. But would he be able to locate the site?
Askat travelled to a limestone quarry to the northeast of Paris and searched the cliffs and undergrowth in the hope of finding some kind of entrance. Indeed, the photographer believed that there was an underground network of shelters hidden in the rocks. All he had to do, then, was find them.
But for the white cross that marked the grave of a fallen soldier, the site was almost undetectable from above ground. However, as Askat scrambled across the terrain he must have noticed an opening in the rock. Because once inside, he found himself within a vast underground complex of rooms and tunnels that had been carved into the limestone.
Askat was likely astonished at what he found inside, since the site seemed to have been largely untouched for around a century. But the sprawling subterranean system itself was not the only treasure he uncovered. Indeed, the tunnels were also packed with artifacts from a bygone era.
As it turned out, the tunnels that Askat found had housed a hospital during WWI. It was here, hidden within the colossal cave complex, that troops from both sides were tended to throughout one of Europe’s deadliest conflicts.
WWI raged for four years between 1914 and 1918, claiming the lives of over 17 million people worldwide. In Western Europe, however, fighting largely took place between Germany and the Allied powers, which included Britain, France and the United States. A further 20 million were injured during the war, making it one of the bloodiest conflicts of all time.
Northern France saw some of the fiercest fighting. Indeed, locals living close to the quarry claimed that the battles there were so brutal that the hospital changed hands between both sides frequently during the conflict.
This, consequently, made Askat’s discovery all the more interesting. He found a variety of military symbols carved into the walls of the tunnels – including that of the French Foreign Legion – along with a host of other wartime relics.
Located close to the French town of Compiègne, the hospital is known as the Carriere Suzanne, and it forms part of a larger network called the Carrieres de Montigny. A vital refuge for troops during the war, the huge cave system spans a whopping two square-miles.
Tucked into the crevices of the quarry, the hospital would have been fairly sheltered from artillery on the surface. Consequently, soldiers would probably have been forced to fight in close combat in order to gain control of the important facility.
Undeterred by the warning signs, then, Askat ventured deep into the bunker. There, he discovered an array of rooms that may well have functioned as the hospital’s wards and operating rooms. What’s more, some of the chambers were even surprisingly spacious, measuring at 40 feet high in places.
However, while most of the site was in good condition, it was still extremely hazardous. Indeed, several of its rooms and walkways were littered with rubble and debris – likely the result of heavy shelling. Elsewhere, Askat also found dangerous devices such as unexploded bombs and grenades.
Within the rocky rooms of the hospital, Askat photographed a range of well-preserved relics. A table and chair, complete with a pot and candle, apparently remained in the same place where soldiers had once recuperated with a drink of tea or coffee.
Stretchers that once carried the wounded lay in the same spot in which they were left around a century ago. These portable beds were lined up in strangely neat rows in a ward that now stood eerily quiet.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Askat also uncovered an old system of rails that give an insight into how the caves were built. Using this system, large boulders would have been lugged along the tracks as the hospital’s halls and passageways were hollowed out.
Elsewhere in the underground tunnels, Askat discovered tin cans, lanterns and the soldiers’ personal effects. Unnervingly, he even unearthed a skull that peered out from its perch in the rocks – a sinister reminder of the site’s perilous past.
Askat believes that there may well be more artifacts buried in the site. However, he had to put his own explorations of the caves on hold after the announcement of plans to restore the site and open it to the public as a war memorial.
Having survived bombing raids and a century of disuse, this incredible underground hospital was gradually being overrun with vegetation. Trees obscured entrances and undergrowth concealed the bunker from above. But, thanks to one man’s passion, the secrets that lie beneath the surface live on.