Whispering Walls: First World War graffiti

Review by AB

Almost every village in the Hauts-de-France region is home to a quarry, dug centuries ago as a source of limestone for their houses and churches, and often used as hiding places in times of trouble over the years. During the First World War, hundreds of these underground labyrinths were discovered and inhabited by armies on both sides of the conflict. The ‘caves’, as the British called them, provided refuge from the fighting above, with spaces transformed into field hospitals, kitchens, chapels, and even theatres, and their walls are adorned with the marks of many of the soldiers who visited them.

These marks take many different forms, some very impressive – like the insignia of the Royal Highlanders of Canada, intricately carved by one member of the regiment who was a stonecutter by trade (estimated to have taken at least 40 hours to complete), or the beautiful sculpture of Demeter or Ceres created by an opera singer from Paris, most likely modelled on the goddess pictured at the time on the French ten franc note. Often, the men simply left their names, service numbers, and regiments, and sometimes their addresses or images of home, from touching drawings of farm animals by a young man from rural Ontario to an impressive bas-relief of the monuments of Paris. Other common motifs include reminders of what they were fighting for, or sources of comfort, such as wives or girlfriends, Christian crosses, four-leafed clovers, and even the Square and Compasses of the Freemasons. Also seen frequently are expressions of national pride and, even more popular, symbols of individual regiments or battalions, but, perhaps surprisingly, expressions of hatred towards the enemy are relatively rare. What’s more, even as the caves changed hands, soldiers seem largely to have respected each other’s engravings, and French and German names can be found written side- by-side on the same rock.

This accessible, well-illustrated, short publication does not attempt to provide a comprehensive account of all of the graffiti found in the quarries along the Western Front. Instead, David Crossland focuses on the personal stories behind the engravings. The result is a fascinating and moving introduction to a subject that offers a new lens through which to examine the First World War; it is one that is very much worth exploring.

Whispering Walls: First World War graffiti
David Crossland
Amberley, £15.99
ISBN 978-1398111882