As if inscribed today, the crisp etching “James Cockburn 8th Durham, L.I.” followed by the inscribed date “April 1, 1917” was discovered on the walls of the cave like tunnels in Naours, France. The date provided clues to the World War I time period in which thousands of soldiers left such markings in the stone walls. Archaeologist, Gilles Prilaux, made the surprising discovery while studying the Naours tunnels as a lens into the middle ages. The Naours tunnels are far from the front lines of the WWI battlefields, yet 1,821 soldiers from the U.S., Australia, Britain, and Canada made their way into the underground tunnels for reasons that are now being further explored by historians. World War I is remembered as one of the most deadly and horrific wars in the history of the world. The discovery thousands of inscriptions can help shed some light on the ways in which World War I soldiers coped with facing mortality and the traumas of war.
Naours Tunnels: A Place of Solace
While Naours Tunnels were nearby the front lines of battles, the closest battle site at 25 miles away was the Battle of Somme. The proximity of Somme leads experts to think that many of the soldiers who marked their writings in Naours participated in the battle of the Somme, in which 1.2 million Allie soldiers were killed. This connection to the deadly battle of the Somme could mean that for many of the soldiers, the Naours tunnels were their last place of solace and escape from the horrors of World War I. Historians were able to confirm the soldiers visit to the Naours tunnels through Wilfred Joseph Allan Allsop’s diary entry from January 2, 1917, in which he wrote, “At 1 p.m. 10 of us went to the famous Caves near Naours where refugees used to hide in time of invasion.” This diary excerpt provides an avenue into the minds of these World War I soldiers. The Naours tunnels were an artifact frozen in time, representing times of conflict and invasion from centuries ago. Again during such traumatic encounters, World War I soldiers also sought refuge in these tunnels, even if momentarily, from facing the traumatic realities of war. The Naours tunnels provided a time for peace, reflection, and remembrance of the people of a different time, yet sharing a similar hope for safety and solace.
Meaning through Inscriptions
The thousands of inscriptions on the Naours cave walls are continuing to be examined and connected to the soldiers who left their mark. What is also being explored is the meaning behind the inscriptions. Many of the soldiers left their name, ranking, and the military unit they belonged to. It was as if they sensed the inevitable death ahead as World War I continued to take the lives of millions around them. The inscription of a person’s name is a mark of his or her identity; proof to the existence of that person. The Naours markings were etched into the stone walls, leaving an even more permanent mark than ink on paper ever could. The process of etching into stone is also often considered a meditative practice. Etching into stone is a repetitive motion that requires focus on pressure and direction. This act also could have acted as a form of reflection for each soldier as they marked their name. The process of etching one’s name allowed time for the soldiers to reflect on their purpose in those days of war. A purpose that for many was not understood, but through marking their name in a place of solace, the soldiers could make some meaning to their purpose.
Remembrance and Honor During Conflict
For many soldiers who have lived through the conflict of war, remembrance and honor is a theme in making a meaning that drives the soldiers’ will to fight, while also making peace with the possibility of death. A soldier’s name is the symbol of that honor. This is emphasized by the pride a soldier takes in his or her dog tags. The Ally soldiers of World War I were in foreign countries with nothing but weapons and a few rations to their name. Even that phrase, “to their name” signifies the powerful symbol in a name. With nothing to leave behind, the soldiers finding solace in the Naours tunnels only had their name. Each soldier’s name carried the weight of where they came from, who they were, and the legacy of honor they hoped to leave in fighting for their country. It was all they had left to give.
The inscriptions found on the walls of the Naours tunnel are a gateway into the World War I soldiers attempt to cope with their likely death and make meaning of their purpose. The soldiers connected with the history of the Naours tunnels as place of refuge for centuries past, as well as the solace of a quiet place amidst the sounds of war. By marking their name on the walls, the soldiers were able to reflect on their time in war, the brotherhood created amidst their Ally friends, and establish in stone a symbol of honor and remembrance for their existence in the world.
Keller, G. (2015). WWI Graffiti Sheds Light On Soldiers’ Experience. Yahoo News. Retrieved from http://news.yahoo.com/wwi-graffiti-sheds-light-soldiers-experience-091037789.html
World War I History. (2015). Retrieved April 7, 2015, from http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/world-war-i-history/infographics/world-war-i-by-the-numbers