WWI graf­fiti sheds light on wartime ex­pe­ri­ences of sol­diers

The China Post - - LIFE - BY GREG KELLER

A head­lamp cuts through the dark­ness of a rough-hewn pas­sage 100 feet un­der­ground to re­veal an in­scrip­tion: “James Cock­burn 8th Durham L.I.”

It’s cut so clean it could have been left yes­ter­day. Only the date next to it — April 1, 1917 — roots it in the hor­rors of World War I.

The piece of graf­fiti by a sol­dier in a Bri­tish in­fantry unit is just one of nearly 2,000 cen­tury-old in­scrip­tions that have re­cently come to light in Naours, a two-hour drive north of Paris. Many marked a note for pos­ter­ity in the face of the doom that trench war­fare a few dozen miles away would bring to many.

“It shows how sol­diers form a sense of place and an un­der­stand­ing of their role in a harsh and hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment,” said his­to­rian Ross Wil­son of Chich­ester Univer- sity in the United King­dom.

Etch­ings, even scratched bas­re­liefs, were left by many sol­diers dur­ing the war. But those in Naours “would be one of the high­est con­cen­tra­tions of in­scrip­tions on the West­ern Front” that stretches from Switzer­land to the North Sea, said Wil­son.

The site’s prox­im­ity to the Somme bat­tle­fields, where more than a mil­lion men were killed or wounded, adds to the dis­cov­ery’s im­por­tance. “It pro­vides in­sight into how they found a sense of mean­ing in the con­flict,” said Wil­son.

Naours’ un­der­ground city is a 3-kilo­me­ter (2-mile) -long com­plex of tun­nels with hun­dreds of cham­bers dug out over cen­turies in the chalky Pi­cardy plateau. Dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages vil­lagers took shel­ter there from ma­raud­ing armies criss­cross­ing north­ern France. By the 18th cen­tury the quarry’s en­trance was blocked off and forgotten.

In 1887 a lo­cal priest re­dis­cov­ered the site and it even­tu­ally be­came a tourist at­trac­tion. That’s what likely drew the sol­diers to it dur­ing the war, said Gilles Pri­laux, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist for France’s na­tional ar­chae­ol­ogy in­sti­tute. He be­gan a three-year study of the tun­nels last July, in­tend­ing to fo­cus on the site’s me­dieval past — only to stum­ble upon this more re­cent slice of his­tory.

“It was a big sur­prise,” Pri­laux said of the dis­cov­ery of the World War I graf­fiti left by sol­diers from Australia, the UK, Canada and the U.S.

Sol­diers left sim­i­lar in­scrip­tions in tun­nels at Ar­ras and Vimy. But un­like those sites, Naours is well back from the front lines. And it wasn’t known to have been used as a shel­ter or hos­pi­tal like other West­ern Front quar­ries.

Pho­tog­ra­pher Jeff Gusky has tal­lied 1,821 in­di­vid­ual names: 731 Aus­tralians, 339 Bri­tish, 55 Amer­i­cans, a hand­ful of French and Cana­di­ans and 662 oth­ers whose na­tion­al­i­ties have yet to be traced.

‘Wanted to be re­mem­bered’

“All th­ese guys wanted to be re­mem­bered,” Gusky says, point­ing out ex­am­ples from Texas and Florida.

Naours is only a few miles from Vig­na­court, a town used as a stag­ing area for troops mov­ing up to and back from the Somme bat­tle­fields some 25 miles to the east. Pri­laux thinks that the young sol­diers from dis­tant coun­tries would have heard about the fa­mous “Naours caves” and taken ad­van­tage of a break from war to do some sight-see­ing.

That idea is backed by an en­try in the di­ary of Wil­fred Joseph Al­lan All­sop, a 23-year-old pri­vate from Syd­ney, Australia. “At 1 p.m. 10 of us went to the fa­mous Caves near Naours where refugees used to hide in times of In­va­sion” All­sop wrote on Jan. 2, 1917.

Wil­son said the im­por­tance of study­ing graf­fiti like this has only emerged in the last 10 to 20 years.

“What were pre­vi­ously re­garded as in­ci­den­tal acts that oc­cur away from the bat­tle­field have been shown to be highly im­por­tant in un­der­stand­ing the lives of those who ex­pe­ri­enced the con­flict,” Wil­son said.

One of the most mov­ing in­scrip­tions at Naours was made by Her­bert John Leach, a 25-yearold from Ade­laide. His in­scrip­tion reads “HJ Leach. Merely a pri­vate. 13/7/16. SA Australia.”

Barely a month af­ter Leach added his name to the wall he was killed in ac­tion on Aug. 23, 1916, dur­ing the Battle of Pozieres.

On his grave, in the Aus­tralian ceme­tery in nearby Flers, his fa­ther in­scribed “Duty Nobly Done.”

2. In this Feb. 20 photo, a di­rec­tion sign en­graved with names is pic­tured in a for­mer chalk quarry, at the Cite Souter­raine in Naours. 3. In this Feb. 20 photo, Jef­frey Gusky, a pho­tog­ra­pher and physi­cian from Texas, walks in a for­mer chalk quarry, at the Cite Souter­raine in Naours.

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