By Arthur H. Gunther III
With the beginning of World War I just a bit more than 100 years ago, with the lessons of that first of two cataclysmic 20th century death-rendering events as unlearned as they are in all conflicts, there are words that still draw emotion, words from the once living, words inscribed by 20-somethings, many of whom did not survive to build their lives.
In Naours, France, near the Somme battlefields where more than a million men were killed or wounded, and where all were somehow afflicted forever, there are some 2,000, century-old inscriptions recently discovered, or perhaps found anew by others, as is the way with history.
At Naours, there is a two-mile-long complex of tunnels 100 feet or so deep with side chambers dug over the centuries, used in the Middle Ages for shelter during invasions in northern France. The caves became a tourist attraction, and during the Great War, they were visited by soldiers, who left graffiti.
Gilles Prilaux, an archaeologist for France’s national archaeology institute, began a three-year study of the tunnels last July and found the World War I markings by British, Canadian, Australian and U.S. troops. A recent Associated Press story by Greg Keller also reported that “Photographer Jeff Gusky has tallied 1,821 individual names,” names of people who “wanted to be remembered.”
Well, yes. These are soldiers who knew they might die the next day. Here was a chance to leave an epitaph, a diary entry, a comment on it all. “It shows how soldiers form a sense of place and an understanding of their role in a harsh and hostile environment,” AP quoted historian Ross Wilson of Chichester University in Britain.
One inscription reads: “HJ Leach. Merely a private. 13/7/16. SA Australia.” He was a 25-year-old from Adelaide who was killed in action less than a month later during the Battle of Pozieres. The AP story noted that his father would add his own inscription to a stone on Pvt. Leach’s grave in the Australian cemetery in nearby Flers: “Duty Nobly Done.”
How many more words might have been written and spoken in full lifetimes by the soon-to-be lost souls who visited the Naours caves in respite from the trenches? And what of the many who perished on other battlefields, in other wars, then and now? Do we hear them speak? Do we listen?
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org