In 1916, Herbert John Leach, an Australian, was killed at the Battle of Pozieres.
Leach’s grave is in Flers, in northern France. But, the Associated Press reports, you can also find his name inscribed on a wall in a former chalk quarry in Naours. There, nearly 100 years ago, at the age of 25, he wrote: “HJ Leach. Merely a private. 13/7/16. SA Australia.”
Archaeologists only recently discovered Leach’s etching, along with those from more than 1,800 other World War I-era soldiers, deep underground in Naours.
As the AP noted:
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 Britain.
“All these guys wanted to be remembered,” photographer Jeff Gusky told the AP.
Gusky has kept a record of the 1,821 names he has discovered at the site; among them, the AP noted, are 731 Australians, 339 British and 55 Americans. The nationalities for more than 600 of them have yet to be traced, the AP reported.
Naours is located about two hours from Paris and not far from Vignacourt, which was a staging area during the war. The etchings discovered there aren’t totally unique — graffiti like this has also been found at places like Vimy and Arras.
These marks, however, “would be one of the highest concentrations of inscriptions on the Western Front,” the historian Wilson told the AP.
“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.
Here’s a deeper history of the site, via the Associated Press:
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, Britain, Canada and the U.S.
You can get another look at the graffiti — and the site — in the photos below.