One of the most fascinating places on the Western Front is Naours, where underground tunnels contain the largest known collection of First World War graffiti.
The 3000 etchings in the chalky walls give new insight into soldiers’ experiences, especially how they maintained a sense of identity and meaning in a harsh and life-threatening environment.
The Underground City in Naours, north of Amiens, is a three-kilometre complex of tunnels beneath the plateau of Picardy.
It was excavated in the 3rd century and occupied continuously during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618 to 1648 when villagers sheltered from armies crossing Northern France.
In the First World War, however, it was used for recreation. Naours is near Vignacourt which was a busy staging area for the Somme battlefields and where many soldiers took leave, as indicated in the diary of one Australia soldier.
Private Wilfred Allsop from Sydney wrote on 2 January 1917: ‘At 1pm 10 of us went to the famous caves near Naours where refugees used to hide in times of invasion. These Caves contain about 300 rooms, one cave being ½ mile long. A whole Division of troops 20,000 could be accommodated here, horses, artillery …’
A team of French and Australian researchers working together recently discovered the incredible stories, which include the inscriptions of at least 731 Anzac soldiers.
The researchers are now connecting the signatures with the names and biographies of the soldiers.
Gunner Lieutenant Leslie Russel Blake wrote on one of the walls in 1917.
Before the war, he was a member of Douglas Mawson’s Antarctica expedition as a geological surveyor, skills that became invaluable in charting the frontline.
Lieutenant Blake was promoted to captain and served at Hill 60. He was awarded the Military Cross for conscious gallantry in action, carrying out reconnaissance under very heavy fire and obtaining valuable information.
He died in the last weeks of the war and was buried at Tincourt New British Cemetery.
Like so many others, Captain Blake never returned from the frontline but left his name etched in history.
A new Museum – Silent soldiers of Naours – tells the story of these soldiers who came to visit the underground tunnels. Fascinating and moving it offers a unique testimony to the First World War and an opportunity to discover the faces behind the inscriptions written in pencil on the limestone rock over a century ago.
- For more information, see The Silent Soldiers of Naours: messages from beneath the Somme by Gilles Prilaux, Matthieu Beuvin, Michael Fiechtner, and Donna Fiechtner (Sydney: NSW New Holland, 2017).