WWI graffiti sheds light on wartime experiences of soldiers

By Greg Keller ,AP

NAOURS, France — 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 �X April 1, 1917 �X 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 University in the United Kingdom.

Etchings, even scratched bas-reliefs, 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 �X 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.