BY the time Bradford war hero Samuel Meekosha wrote his name on a cave wall near the Western Front, his Victoria Cross was already part of his identity.

His proud inscription “Sgt. S. Meekosha V. C. 46th West Yorks.” was discovered in 2015 in catacombs under the village of Naours, north of Amiens in northeastern France, and like each of the more than 3,200 names scribbled by First World War soldiers there, it tells a story.

The Victoria Cross thrust this brave man, described as modest and private, into the limelight. He was awarded it by King George V in Buckingham Palace for risking his life to save comrades while under German shellfire near Ypres in 1915.

Meekosha featured in the Daily Mirror and was splashed on the front page of the Bradford Weekly Telegraph under the headline ‘The Bradford Man of the Week.’ It ran photos of him and his mother and sisters at their home in Tennent Street, West Bowling, much like Hello! magazine would cover a celebrity today.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Sam Meekosha with his family at home in West Bowling Sam Meekosha with his family at home in West Bowling (Image: Sam Meekosha family)

He was invited to lunch with the Lord Mayor of Bradford, Thomas Howarth, whom he told that “he had only done what had been done by many others and what many others would do,” according to a report in The Times.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: 'Bradford Man of the Week''Bradford Man of the Week' (Image: Newsquest)

Meekosha survived the war. Of course, scores of comrades who wrote on the walls of Naours and hundreds of other caves in France did not.

They include the Australian Antarctic explorer Leslie Russell Blake, a peer of Scott and Shackleton who survived daring reconnaissance missions into No Man’s Land but was killed by a shell six weeks before the Armistice.

Or Alister Ross, a Scot who emigrated to Australia in 1912, joined the Australian army and was saved at Gallipoli by the Bible in his breast pocket that stopped two pieces of shrapnel heading for his heart. Sadly, his luck ran out on the Somme in August 1916.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Alister Ross's inscription at Naours. Pic: David CrosslandAlister Ross's inscription at Naours. Pic: David Crossland (Image: David Crossland)

Many of the inscriptions at Naours look as fresh today as they were over a century ago. The soldiers, far from home, knew it might be their last trace. Their names ring out with the question: “Will I make it?”

Thanks to French researchers who have led efforts to identify the authors and determine their fates in recent years, we can answer that question for ever more of these inscriptions. All too often, it is a shake of the head. Some are known to have been killed within weeks or days of leaving their trace.

Naours is one of an estimated 400 underground sites in northeastern France containing significant amounts of graffiti made by soldiers on both sides.

Most of them are quarries that were dug in almost every village centuries ago as a source of limestone for houses, barns and churches. They became refuges in the conflicts that ravaged the region through the ages, and an air of secrecy surrounds them to this day.

Along the front, these labyrinthine tunnel systems were used by all armies as shelters, field hospitals and command posts during the Great War.

Their soft walls were a perfect canvas for the men as they rested or waited to go into battle. They didn’t only write their names. Many soldiers created intricate wall carvings that must have taken hours of concentrated effort. Others depict big-breasted nudes or male genitals. This was graffiti after all, created by boys in their teens and twenties.

Down here in the gloom, their thoughts were free to roam. The walls betray a range of emotions; hope, pride, fear, defiance and a desire not to be forgotten. They scribbled the name of a mate who had fallen. Or they drew portraits of their wife or girlfriend, or the pretty waitress they had seen in a cafe. Their farm animals back home, their favourite horse or dog. A rousing poem. A patriotic slogan. A Christian cross.

They drew the insignia of their regiment or battalion. They carved four-leafed clovers for luck, the Square and Compasses of their Masonic lodge or symbols of their nation such as Nelson’s Column, Marianne, the Iron Cross, the Canadian Maple Leaf or Buffalo Bill.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Canadian soldier Aleck Ambler's carving of Royal Highlands of Canada badge. Pic: David CrosslandCanadian soldier Aleck Ambler's carving of Royal Highlands of Canada badge. Pic: David Crossland (Image: David Crossland)

It is humbling to venture down into these caves, some still strewn with boots, bully beef tins, gas masks and rusted rolls of barbed wire, and to admire their work as the chalk dust floats in the torchlight.

The men are all gone but their testimony is here, immediate and undistorted by time. These traces cut through decades of myth, propaganda and shifting trends of remembrance.

Over a century on, they speak directly to the viewer and provide new insights not just into the war but the human response to extreme conflict.

Research into the graffiti has intensified in recent years amid a growing awareness that it represents a priceless historical legacy that is at risk from erosion and vandalism.

Many of the more than 10,000 inscriptions and carvings found under the Western Front are destined to fade from the walls, be buried by tunnel collapses or remain unseen in the blackness of forgotten, dangerous-to-access quarries.

Archaeologists have embarked on extensive projects to catalogue the inscriptions and create 3D digital imagery of the caves - that is probably the only way to keep the soldiers’ testimony alive for posterity.

“These inscriptions are like bottles thrown into the sea,” said Gilles Chauwin, head of one of the heritage associations dedicated to protecting the caves.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Whispering Walls by David CrosslandWhispering Walls by David Crossland (Image: David Crossland)

* The Whispering Walls - First World War Graffiti by David Crossland (Amberley Publishing) explores a little-known legacy of the First World War: inscriptions and wall carvings left by soldiers of all nations in caves in France. The book tells the stories of men behind the graffiti and presents some of the most striking works in more than 100 photographs.