NEW research into graffiti written in caves under the Western Front during the First World War has shown that soldiers almost never expressed hatred of their enemies. In fact, they respected each other’s traces.

Most of the approximately 10,000 inscriptions catalogued so far in a growing effort to preserve this little-known testimony were made by non-commissioned troops who, as one French archaeologist put it, “knew they were all going through the same hell.”

The historian Thierry Hardier, a leading authority on First World War graffiti, found that only 0.15 percent of the 4,566 inscriptions he has recorded in underground sites used as shelters in northeastern France showed hate or hostility towards the enemy.

Instead, soldiers wanted to leave a trace of themselves or their military unit, or express patriotism, religious faith, their yearning for home, humour, or grief for a fallen comrade.

In a particularly impressive cave network under the village of Naours, where the walls are covered with the names of around 3,200 Australian and British soldiers, I found only one hostile inscription and even that wasn’t directed against the common soldier. It reads: ‘Damn the Kaiser.’

This chimes with recent research showing that informal truces at Christmas and other times of the year were far more frequent than previously thought.

Of the hundreds of former limestone quarries in the Hauts-de-France region that were used by the troops, many changed hands in the course of the war and it is striking that soldiers tended not to deface each other’s work -they just made their own inscriptions next to it.

In doing so, they created a bond that reached across No Man’s Land and says much about the futility of the Great War.

At a cave near the bitterly contested Chemin des Dames ridge near the town of Laon, the French soldier Pierre Théoleyre of the 72nd infantry regiment wrote his name in 1917 just a couple of inches away from the inscription of German “Landsturmmann” or reservist W. Schmitz of the 161st regiment who recorded his nine-day stay there in 1915.

At the entrance to one cave held first by the British, then the French and finally the Germans, soldiers carved their regimental insignia side by side - the Hampshire Regiment, the French 45h Battalion of the Chasseurs à Pied and then the Prinz Carl von Preussen Grenadier Regiment.

By contrast, in another cave, I saw an entire wall of war graffiti defaced by modern-day spray-painters, revealing a disregard that the combatants, after years of trying to kill one another, didn’t show for each other’s inscriptions.

The soldiers of all nations made their mark in the knowledge that they might literally disappear, atomised by shellfire which accounted for 60 percent of the nine to 11 million military deaths in the war.

They had a defiant desire to create something personal in a conflict of mass armies and mechanised destruction where the individual counted for little.

“Isn’t sculpture in the hell of war a profound sign of humanity?” said French farmer Jean-Luc Pamart, who set up a heritage association to protect carvings in his local area near the town of Soissons.

Although the combatants had much in common, there are obvious national differences in their graffiti.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: French sculpture of French lion vanquishing German monster French sculpture of French lion vanquishing German monster (Image: David Crossland)

The French focused on crafting beautiful women, some nude, as well as grand sculptures, one of which portrayed a French lion standing dominant on a grotesque German monster with a little spiked helmet on its head. Perhaps surprisingly, that work survived the war even though German troops took over the caves and spent months walking past it.

French commanders picked out soldiers with a talent for sculpture - some of them were professional stone-cutters or even sculptors in civilian life - to adorn the caves with rousing artworks and grand regimental panels listing the unit’s commanding officers.

The Germans were more down-to-earth, opting for functional signage such as ‘To the kitchen’ or ‘1st Platoon.’ They tended to leave fewer personal inscriptions than the Allies - it may have been forbidden by their commanders.

A common German inscription is the slogan ‘Gott Mit Uns’ (God With Us). They also pencilled or chiselled the Iron Cross.

The Anglo-Saxon allies frequently wrote their name, rank, serial number and sometimes even their home address, which makes the authors easier to identify.

Researchers said this desire to leave a clearly identifiable trace in part reflected their long distance from home - a bit like sending a postcard, they wanted to make a record of their presence in this foreign place.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Bas-relief of Marianne, French national symbol Bas-relief of Marianne, French national symbol (Image: David Crossland)

The Brits often drew the insignia of their military units, an important source of identity for the New Army of volunteer recruits with its Pals’ Battalions formed among men of the same city or occupation, with disastrous consequences for local communities after the slaughter on the Somme. This regimental pride was also evident in impressive Canadian wall carvings of unit badges.

The Americans’ graffiti was big and bold, with lettering resembling the font of advertisement billboards that pulsate with the energy of fresh troops ready for a fight. Seen today, their inscriptions augur the outcome of the war.

In one cave, they made over 1,000 inscriptions in six weeks. The Germans had made only a few dozen there - in three years.

Read David's previous feature here:

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: David's book explores the little known legacy of WW1 carvings and graffiti David's book explores the little known legacy of WW1 carvings and graffiti (Image: David Crossland)

* The Whispering Walls - First World War Graffiti by David Crossland (Amberley Publishing) explores inscriptions and wall carvings by First World War soldiers in caves in France.