In his new book Men At War: Loving, Lusting, Fighting, Remembering 1939–1945, Luke Turner writes of “the banality of generalisation” that blights many accounts of World War II. In Whispering Walls, David Crossland echoes that view in relation to the previous global conflict: “The generation that fell silent on the Western Front over a century ago is often remembered collectively rather than as individuals.”
His objective is, like Turner’s, to paint portraits of the quietly remarkable lives of some of those on the front line, drawing on an incredible resource: graffiti and carvings left by the soldiers who took shelter in the limestone quarries and caves beneath the battlefields.
And so it is that we meet the likes of Alister Ross, a Scot who had emigrated to Australia and whose life was literally saved by the Bible in his pocket (“the Lord is my strength and my shield” indeed); and Leslie Russell Blake, previously a member of Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition team, who, when receiving the Military Cross in 1917, excused himself from a protracted conversation with King George V because he was anxious about missing a dental appointment.
Of all of the inscriptions and artwork featured in the book, arguably the most poignant is a crude cock and balls that simultaneously dissolves the temporal distance between reader and artist and underlines the youthful immaturity of those whose lives were lost. Crossland’s book is both a plea for preservation (he argues that the souterraines should be granted UNESCO World Heritage status) and a testament to the irrepressible human impulse to be creative and leave one’s mark, even amid the horrors of war.
Whispering Walls: First World War Graffiti, David Crossland (Amberley)
Price: £15.99. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD
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